As if Floridians need more to worry about from Mother Nature — take your pick; we've got invasive pythons, wild bears and coyotes, deadly snails — now health officials in the Sunshine State have released a warning on flesh-eating bacteria that have been making appearances on our beaches. And before you write this off as just another health department scare, listen up: Broward County has just reported its first cases of the bacteria in two years.
The bacteria is known officially as vibrio vulnificus. It thrives in saltwater, and basically it can wiggle into a person's bloodstream in one of two ways: through contaminated shellfish (yup) and through open wounds that make contact with sea water. In the former, the symptoms include vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Skin contact can produce ulcers and skin lesions. Truly serious cases lead to fever and septic shock. The folks most at risk of the bacteria are those with weakened immune systems, particularly liver disease.
The truly scary fact: When vibrio vulnificus infects the bloodstream, 50 percent of the time the cases are fatal, according to the Florida Department of Health. "A recent study showed that people with these pre-existing medical conditions were 80 times more likely to develop vibrio vulnificus bloodstream infections than healthy people," the department website cautions.
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Now, the question you're all wondering: How common in vibrio vulnificus? State officials are quick to point out that the bacteria is very rare, at least in cases where infection takes hold.
That said, Broward is currently leading the state with the number of confirmed cases. As of June, there have been two confirmed cases of vibrio vulnificus in Broward. Six counties have reported single cases. Broward is also the only South Florida county to report any vibrio vulnificus in 2015.
None of the Broward cases has led to death. Across Florida, there have been two reported vibrio vulnificus deaths — in Marion and Brevard counties. Last year, Broward saw no cases of vibrio vulnificus. Overall, the state reported 32 cases in 2014, with seven deaths. 2013 saw an overall spike: 41 cases with 12 deaths. This was the highest tally of overall cases between 2008 and 2014.
State health officials have some tips on how to avoid the bacteria. For one, don't eat raw shellfish like oysters. Also, if you do get down with shellfish, make sure the critters are cooked through and through. When handling raw shellfish, make sure you cover open wounds. The same goes for swimming in the ocean — if you have open cuts or scratches, cover up. Or just stay out of the water. Or just move to Nebraska.