The Florida Department of Health is warning Florida residents and tourists that a deadly strain of flesh-eating bacteria has killed two people and is responsible for sickening at least two dozen more in the past 12 months.
Federal health officials have said Vibrio vulnificus infections have increased each year since 2000.
As scary as that sounds, though, the likelihood of contracting the bacterium is still pretty small.
“You are more likely to die in a car accident on the way to (a) restaurant than from Vibrio,” says University of Florida microbiology professor Paul Gulig.
Here are five things to know about flesh-eating bacteria in Florida:
1. It’s the fish, not the water - Most people who die from the bacteria contracted it from eating raw or under-cooked seafood, especially shellfish, like oysters, than from swimming in the Gulf. Swimming in salt water with an open wound increases your chances of getting it, but that shouldn’t keep the vast majority of people from getting in the water.
2. Now is the time to be vigilant – Peak season for Vibrio is during the warmer months, between May and October. The warm weather breeds the bacteria, and people are more likely to be swimming in the water and consuming seafood while on vacation or enjoying the scenery.
3. It’s extremely rare, and extremely deadly – According to the CDC, in 2014 there were about 90 total infections of Vibrio in the U.S., including 35 deaths. By comparison, the flu kills between 3,300 and 49,000 people every year. That being said, the bacteria is life-threatening. Vibrio kills one in three people who become infected.
4. It’s not really flesh-eating, it just looks that way – The only bacteria that are officially classified as “flesh eating” belong to the streptococcus A family. Vibrio is called “flesh eating” because it invades the blood stream and causes skin lesions that are similar to strsep A.
5. Your risk is pretty low, even if you’re sick – Most people who are truly vulnerable to Vibrio already have a weakened immune system, and suffer from other ailments, like chronic liver disease. There is no evidence of person-to-person transmission. Just to be safe, though, health officials say you should clean any open wounds after you’ve gone swimming in the ocean.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.