Breaking down the myths of Vibrio Vulnificus, so you can relax in the water

With one death so far in 2013 in Lee County from Vibrio vulnificus and a lot of media attention, most people think they have two choices: stay out of the water or stay out of the water. But before you head to the beach in your inflatable protective bubble, let’s dispel a few myths about this somewhat misunderstood resident of our local waterways.

Flesh-Eating Bacteria?
The term flesh-eating bacteria actually refers to necrotizing fasciitis, which can occur whenever a bacteria or fungus invades the fascial planes of the skin. The most common bacteria to cause necrotizing fasciitis are Streptococcus pyogenes. Vibrio vulnificus has a bit of a bad reputation and has been maligned significantly (if you can malign bacteria) by calling it flesh-eating.

Unlike Streptococcus pyogenes, Vibrio vulnificus technically belongs to a group of bacteria that require salt to live. According to the Florida Department of Health, Vibrio vulnificus lives in warm seawater or brackish waters, such as the rivers and estuaries that border the Gulf.

Also, unlike Streptococcus pyogenes, your skin isn’t Vibrio vulnificus’ prime target, so flesh-eating is a bit of a misnomer. Instead, this particular bacteria can be contracted by eating raw shellfish or via entering an open wound. Often reported cases could have contracted Vibrio vulnificus both ways, according to Diane Holm, Public Information Officer, Florida Department of Health Lee County.

Bacterial Invasion?
While the current (and constant) news coverage of Vibrio vulnificus is enough to send your Midwest Nana into heart failure, the reality is, Vibrio vulnificus is a year-round resident.

Being naturally found in warm marine waters, which are prevalent in our part of the Gulf, Vibrio vulnificus is a bit more common in the summer months. In 2013, Florida has had 27 reported cases of infection from Vibrio vulnificus and nine deaths; one of those was in Lee County. That is exactly the same number of reported cases and deaths as 2012, and lower than 2011, which had 35 reported cases and 13 deaths. Holm stated that cases of Vibrio vulnificus actually peaked in Lee County in 2012 with a total of four confirmed cases, as compared to the current one confirmed case and death.

Although any death is terrible, one confirmed case this year is certainly less than four, and not an invasion that should keep you out of the Gulf’s gorgeous waterways. Holm confirmed this stating, “This is nothing abnormal. These are perfectly normal numbers that we see every year.”

Where’s My Bubble?
So, what can you do to prevent Vibrio vulnificus–your neighborhood friendly, skin-ulcer inducing, raw-oyster-loving bacteria from paying a visit? First: Do not go into the seawater with an open wound. This seems like common sense, but many of us grew up being told to quickly rinse any cuts we got while fishing in the water (salt or freshwater) to stop the bleeding. Clearly, this is a bad idea. Next, avoid eating raw oysters or other shellfish, or cook them thoroughly prior to eating and wear protective clothing when handling raw shellfish. Finally, keep in mind that most people, especially fit people, have little to worry about from Vibrio vulnificus. Your immune system is perfectly capable of fighting off an infection. Those that should be concerned are people with a compromised immune system or any type of liver disease. Check the Florida Department of Health website for more information on Vibrio vulnificus and other possible health scares.

Our oceans are perfectly fine for recreational swimming or open-water swim practice, and as we enter the cooler months, we should see a decrease in reports of Vibrio vulnificus infections. Still, be smart—don’t go in the water with a new cut or open wound, and cook your shellfish before eating. And if you want to have fun with Nana over the holidays, start talking about the spring lightning season, or pythons, or alligators, or, well, you get the idea.