Hurricane Ian’s storm surge led to record number of Vibrio vulnificus cases

With two months remaining, Florida has already broken a grim record this year: 65 infections with Vibrio vulnificus, a potentially deadly microbe known, but not quite correctly, as flesh-eating bacteria.

Lee County’s 29 cases and four deaths are the highest in the state in either category, a tally that Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani calls “off the charts.”

Collier has had three cases and no deaths; Charlotte has had only one non-fatal case. The landlocked county of Hendry had none. The state total is the highest since V. vulnificus infections began being tracked in 2008. The next highest year was 2017, when Hurricane Irma caused extensive flooding. That year, there were 50 cases statewide and 11 deaths, as many as this year.

Read more:Health officials warn against swimming at local beaches, in pools after Hurricane Ian

Also:Health officials warn against swimming at local beaches, in pools after Hurricane Ian

Blame for the 2022 peak lies with Hurricane Ian, said the Florida Department of Health, which is warning people to stay clear of flooding and standing water left by the storm. “Sewage spills into coastal waters, such as those caused by Hurricane Ian, can increase bacteria levels,” Lee County Department spokeswoman Tammy Soliz wrote in a statement. “People with open wounds, cuts, or scrapes may be exposed to Vibrio vulnificus through direct contact with seawater or brackish water.” The same goes for those who eat raw or undercooked oysters and shellfish, she points out.

Once acquired, the infection can destroy soft tissue, a condition called necrotizing fasciitis, although other infections can also cause it. Symptoms include chills, fever, swelling, blistering, skin lesions, severe pain, low blood pressure, and discharge from the wound. Without treatment, death can occur in just a few days.

Related to cholera, which also belongs to the genus Vibrio, V. vulnificus is naturally present in the type of warm salt water found around the barrier islands and estuaries of southwest Florida, explains Anthony Ouellette, professor of biology and chemistry at the University of Jacksonville. In general, says Ouellette, they are quite picky about where they live: “They don’t like full-strength seawater and they can’t live in streams and rivers,” he said. he stated, but Hurricane Ian helped create new habitat.

Pine Island artist and water activist Rachi Farrow painted this mural to warn of the dangers of Vibrio vulnificus

Since the storm, the bacteria are now probably also in the swamps and retention ponds that have filled with runoff from the hurricanes, “And it’s still hot there, so you have bacteria where they normally wouldn’t. not be who are probably booming now”. he said.

Although healthy people can get it, their cases are usually mild.

“Only those who are immunocompromised should really be worried,” Oullette said, and even then, “only if you go out into floodwaters.”

Sadly, many had to do this to escape Ian – or return home after escaping.

What makes this difficult for Southwest Florida is that age itself can challenge the immune system, as can a number of common illnesses: diabetes, kidney and liver disorders – and drugs like steroids and chemotherapy.

“They’re having a buffet”

The species name, vulnificus, is Latin for hurt, which is exactly what the organism does, Oullette says.

“They can open up your red blood cells to get iron from hemoglobin…they have enzymes that can break down elastin, which is our soft tissue, or collagen, which is also in our soft tissue. They break down our proteins, then they can get our amino acids – so they make themselves a buffet, and that’s what destroys the tissues – they get their food.

Plus, he says, they have a protective carbohydrate capsule that helps them “evade our immune system and hide from us once they get in.”

But first, the bacteria must enter your body. “Either you eat it, or it gets into your ears, or it gets into your blood through a wound,” he said. They can enter through any break in the skin: “cuts, wounds — fresh tattoos, new piercings, any type of body modification where your skin has been penetrated,” Oullette said. “People don’t always think about that awesome tattoo they got or that new nose ring,” but those can become routes of infection, too.

His advice: “Really protect your feet if you walk there. Have good waterproof and sturdy boots. If you get into these standing waters, wash them with soap and water and use an over-the-counter disinfectant, be it alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or betadine.

And if anything goes wrong, see a doctor right away, Soliz said.

Once the gulf flood waters recede, the risk will be reduced, but they will remain in the coastal waters of the estuary. Although the state’s Healthy Beaches testing program checks Gulf islands and beaches for fecal indicator bacteria, it does not monitor Vibrio levels, so it is always prudent to be cautious.

Even so, Cassani is dismayed that the terms haven’t been updated in nearly a month. “(The program) has not sampled or released results since September 19,” he wrote in an email.

This is a critical information gap, he says, because “faecal indicator bacteria are just that – indicators of more serious pathogens like Salmonella, Shigella and Vibrio, and can lead to several types diseases and illnesses in humans, including gastroenteritis and bacillary dysentery, typhoid fever, and cholera FIBs can also be indicators of human viruses and animal parasites, including Giardia and Cryptosporidia of wild or domestic animals.

Stay safe from Vibrio vulnificus

  • If you have open wounds, cuts, or scrapes, stay out of flood water, standing water, sea water, and brackish water, if possible.
  • Immediately clean and carefully monitor wounds and cuts with soap and clean running water or bottled water after contact with flood water, standing water, sea water , brackish water, or raw or undercooked seafood and its juices.
  • Cover your wounds with a waterproof bandage if they may come into contact with flood water, standing water, sea water or brackish water.
  • Seek immediate medical attention if a wound develops redness, swelling, or oozing, or other signs of infection such as fever, increased pain, shortness of breath, rapid or elevated heartbeat, confusion, or disorientation.

For more information, visit the Florida Department of Health’s Vibrio vulnificus website. – Source: Florida Department of Health in Lee County

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