'Flesh-eating' saltwater bacteria kills 2, infects 5 others in Southwest Florida

6:31 AM, Oct 9, 2013   |    comments
Brown Caloosahatchee River water meets the green Gulf waters Thursday, August 22 off near the Sanibel Lighthouse.
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Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Dangerous bacteria linked to scores of illnesses and several deaths this summer in Florida have infected seven people in Lee County, including two people who later died, state health department officials confirmed Tuesday.

Vibrio vulnificus lives in salt water and, in rare cases, can be fatal. It also can cause skin lesions and blisters, prompting some to call it a "flesh-eating" bacterium - a label that Dr. Judith Hartner, the health department's director in Lee County, called an exaggeration.

See Also: Health department urges caution to prevent flesh-eating bacteria

The two fatal Lee County infections involved one county resident in his early 50s, who died last month, and a visitor to the area, who died in July and was older than 60, Hartner said.

Both were infected after going into the Gulf of Mexico with open wounds, Hartner said. She said she does not know where they entered the water. The other five victims, all Lee residents, were infected with less-dangerous Vibrio varieties, she added.

Lee County typically sees about five such cases a year, Hartner said. Most are not serious, she said.

"It's pretty rare," she said.

From 1988 to 2006, about 900 U.S. residents have reported Vibrio infections, most from Gulf Coast states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in Atlanta. Florida sees about 30 such cases a year.

The state has seen at least 27 such cases in 2013, and nine deaths associated with Vibrio vulnificus, according to Health Department officials in Tallahassee. The department issued a public health alert last week about Vibrio vulnificus and is expected to update infection numbers today, said spokeswoman Sheri Hutchinson.

Hartner said her office debated whether to issue a public alert about the infection risk and the deaths this year, but ultimately decided not to. She said she concluded that repeated warnings about every health threat might overwhelm the public and make people ignore more pressing alerts.

"There was no specific public health message to deliver. It was an isolated event," Hartner said.

An 84-year-old woman received treatment, and had a leg amputated, at a Naples-area hospital after becoming infected with Vibrio vulnificus. But its unclear if she was exposed to the bacteria in Collier or in Hernando counties, said Deb Millsap, spokeswoman for the department's Collier County office. And, because the woman did not reside in Collier, the department doesn't count it as a Collier County case, she said.

Vibrio vulnificus is usually found in warm, brackish seawater, according to the health department. It is also found in some raw shellfish, such as oysters.

Common symptoms of infection include vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, the health department said. It may also cause ulcers on the skin or cause the skin to break down. Symptoms are usually mild for people with healthy immune systems.

Infections are treated with antibiotics.

Hartner warned residents to avoid raw oysters and to not expose wounds to salt water. She also advised people to dismiss those who mistakenly believe that salt water has curative properties.

"It appears to be a common folk remedy around here," she said. "But the risk is getting an infection from the saltwater if you go in the water with a wound."

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