Vibrio vulnificus - facts every coastal citizen should know

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Dwight Thomas
  • 96th Medical Group
Whether fishing, swimming or boating, the state of Florida has plenty of water-based activities to offer for both residents and tourists alike. Regardless of the activity, many people don't think about what is in the water besides the fish and other marine animals. It is important to point out there are some particular dangers which you cannot see and by the time they impact you, it's too late.

Vibrio vulnificus (pronounced Vibrio vul-nif-i-cus) is a bacterium which can be found in waters containing marine animals such as shellfish, finfish, and crustaceans. Although this illness is not a common occurrence, the Florida Department of Health reported 50 cases between January 2004 and June of this year in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Bay counties.

Being that there have been only 50 confirmed cases in almost a decade, the odds are pretty good that you will never encounter this bacterium. However, if you do encounter it, the bad news is that infection with V. vulnificus has a high rate of mortality. Out of the 50 confirmed cases reported, 13 individuals died. This is an alarming 26 percent fatality rate, and in other areas, the fatality rate has been as high as 50 percent. In our area the greatest percentage of cases are seen in men over the age of 50; however, everyone is at risk - particularly individuals who are immune-compromised or have liver disease.

So how do you prevent becoming a statistic? First off, V. vulnificus is usually spread through undercooked fish or other seafood, particularly oysters. During the warm summer months, V. vulnificus can be found in most oysters used for human consumption. So the next time you decide to frequent one of the many delicious oyster bars in the area, you may want to skip the raw ones!

V. vulnificus can also be spread through an open wound that comes into contact with the actual organism from the ocean or bayou water, or contaminated fish. Commercial and recreational fishermen are highly at-risk from handling fish. Be aware of any open wounds you may have and try to keep them covered to the best extent possible.

Finally, if you fall into either of the categories above and you notice any symptoms which include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain or blistering you should talk to your health care provider immediately. The bacteria grows rapidly and must be aggressively treated with antibiotics as early as possible. Symptoms can be noticed from 12 to 72 hours up to approximately 21 days after infection.

If infected and left untreated, the infection could lead to having limbs amputated or even death. I don't know about you but I don't think any raw oyster is worth "dying for," and I'd like to keep my limbs where they are, it makes it easier to fish!