State health officials say there are two ways to contract the disease: by eating raw, tainted shellfish — usually oysters — or when an open wound comes in contact with bacteria in warm seawater.
In Mobile, Ala., this week health department officials said two men with underlying health conditions were diagnosed with vibrio vulnificus in recent weeks. One of the men died in September and the other is hospitalized. Both men were tending to crab traps when they came into contact with seawater.
While such occurrences could potentially concern officials in states with hundreds of miles of coastline and economies largely dependent on ocean-related tourism, experts say the bacteria is nothing most people should worry about. Vibrio bacteria exist normally in salt water and generally only affect people with compromised immune systems, they say. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. If the bacteria get into the bloodstream, they provoke symptoms including fever and chills, decreased blood pressure and blistering skin wounds.
But there’s no need to stop swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, says Diane Holm, a spokeswoman for the state health department in Lee County, which has had a handful of cases that included one fatality this year.
“This is nothing abnormal,” she said. “We don’t believe there is any greater risk for someone to swim in the Gulf today than there was yesterday or 10 years ago.”
There have been reports this year in Gulf states of other waterborne illnesses, but they are rare. In fresh water, the Naegleria fowleri amoeba usually feeds on bacteria in the sediment of warm lakes and rivers. If it gets high up in the nose, it can get into the brain. Fatalities have been reported in Louisiana, Arkansas and in Florida, including the August death of a boy in the southwestern part of the state who contracted the amoeba while knee boarding in a water-filled ditch.
Florida Department of Health officials say people shouldn’t be afraid of going into Florida’s waters, but that those with suppressed immune systems, such as people who have cancer, diabetes or cirrhosis of the liver, should be aware of the potential hazards of vibrio vulnificus, especially if they have an open wound.
Holm said nine people died from vibrio vulnificus in Florida in 2012, and 13 in 2011, so this year’s statistics aren’t alarming. What’s different, she said, was that victims’ families are speaking to the news media about the danger.