TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Five people are confirmed dead in the Tampa Bay area due to a rare, flesh-eating bacteria in the waters. According to Florida Health, Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium that naturally occurs in warm, brackish seawater and requires salt.
There have been 25 reported cases and five deaths since January 2023.
“Living in Florida, being around the marine environment, we need to be aware of what it is,” said Dr. Eric Shamas, an emergency medicine physician at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.
There are two confirmed deaths in Hillsborough County, one in Sarasota County, one in Polk County, and one in Pasco County.
In 2022, there were 74 total cases and 17 deaths. Most occurred in Lee County after Hurricane Ian’s waters flooded the community.
According to Florida Health, a person can get infected with Vibrio vulnificus when eating raw shellfish, particularly oysters, and entering seawater with an open wound, especially in the summer months
“Whenever you have a break in the skin and you’re in a marine environment then theoretically you’re at risk,” Shamas said. “It’s very important to keep in mind these severe infections are very rare.”
Health officials warn citizens to not enter the water if they have fresh cuts or scrapes, as the bacteria can enter the bloodstream rather quickly. Bloodstream infections are fatal 50 percent of the time.
“If you have wounds, maybe stay out of the water,” Shamas said. “If you suffer a cut while in the water, just wash it out very thoroughly with soap and water. Monitor your symptoms and follow up with your doctor if you have any questions.”
Common symptoms of the flesh-eating bacteria include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and infection of the skin (if there is an open wound). Those with healthy immune systems are likely to experience a mild infection.
Those with weakened immune systems, or have chronic liver disease, are more prone to serious and life-threatening illnesses with symptoms like fever, chills, decreased blood pressure, septic shock, and blistering skin lesions.
To prevent Vibrio vulnificus infections, avoid eating raw shellfish and oysters, cook shellfish thoroughly, avoid cross-contamination of cooked seafood and raw seafood, avoid exposure of open wounds or broken skin to warm salt or brackish water, and wear protective clothing when handling raw shellfish.
Seek medical help right away if you believe you may have an infection.
For more information on care and treatment specifics, visit the CDC’s website.