As temperatures rise, vibrio expert reminds community of ‘flesh-eating’ bacteria and its risks
Awareness is key
May begins the peak season for cases of the aggressive infection known as “flesh-eating bacteria,” which can find its way from local waterways into a person through open cuts.
Dozens of local residents learned about the risks of vibrio vulnificus from health expert Rita Colwell from the University of Maryland who specializes in infectious diseases last Friday evening at the Calvert Marine Museum.
Vibrio vulnificus is a waterborne and foodborne bacteria that can become deadly quickly if not treated properly in time.
The bacteria lives in coastal waters, and most infections occur from May through October when water temperatures are warmer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Often referred to as the “flesh-eating bacteria,” the infection can destroy the skin and tissue covering the muscle and may require intensive care or limb amputation.
Most people recover from mild vibrio infections after about three days with no lasting effect. The CDC said it receives more than 400 vibrio illness reports every year, 90 of which are caused by vibrio vulnificus. With this type of infection, death can occur in a matter of days. About one in four die from a vibrio vulnificus infection, sometimes within a day or two after becoming ill, according to the CDC.
Vibrio vulnificus is a naturally occurring bacteria that live in brackish water, Colwell said. It thrives in warm water and becomes dormant when temperatures get cold.
When the temperature drops, the bacteria shut down — they don’t die, they close up and wait until it gets warmer, she said. If people harvest oysters in the winter, leaving them around in the house could warm up the oysters and incubate the bacteria.
Colwell’s explanation confirmed David Ryan’s suspicion that he had a vibiro infection over the winter. In January, Ryan got a scrape on one of his knees when working on oysters near his home in Hollywood.
It was about 40 degrees outside, he said. He didn’t give the abrasion too much thought and went home with wet jeans.
In retrospect, Ryan believed he had a vibrio infection after his body temperature warmed up the bacteria and activated it after he went inside. After experiencing some excruciating pain, he went to the emergency room at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital.
“The ER in St. Mary’s Hospital has not learned its lesson,” Ryan said. They ignored his suggestion that he might have had a vibrio infection and didn’t give him the right antibiotics, he said.
“Don’t expect the physicians in the emergency room to know a damn thing about vibrio. They don’t,” said Dr. John Roache, a retired physician from Mechanicsville. “Keep hollering” if you are not satisfied or taken seriously, he said.
After working with local watermen for decades, Roache said what seemed to make a big difference is using a solution of bleach and water to wash the boats and clean gloves, he said.
Colwell agreed that the use of bleached water is a good preventive measure as it reduces bacterial load and debris.
But if an individual has a wound and it comes into contact with contaminated crabs, fish, gear or water from the bay or seawater, there is still risk of a vibrio infection, she said in an email. If the infection is deep, bleach won’t penetrate, and the infection can turn lethal quickly.
Other than cuts, the bacteria can also enter the body when people eat contaminated shellfish, especially oysters.
“So how do you protect yourself? Well, you don’t want to hear this. But frankly, don’t eat raw or undercooked oysters or shellfish,” Colwell said.
For those who have underlying health conditions such as a compromised immune system or liver diseases, Colwell said eating raw or uncooked shellfish is like playing Russian roulette.
“You don’t want to be another statistic,” she said. “Be careful, be very careful. Definitely stay away from raw oysters.”
An attendee asked Colwell the potential effect of raw oysters on children after sharing that she was “appalled” to hear her niece allowing a 4-yearold child to eat raw oysters.
“I’m not exactly a helicopter mother, but I probably wouldn’t be thrilled about it,” Colwell said. “But on the other hand, I wouldn’t have a hissy fit over it either.”
For parents who are taking their kids to the beach this summer, Colwell said there’s no need to do a full-body “inspection” before allowing them to go play in the water. But if the kids had cut their fingers the day before, for example, parents may want to keep them out of the water.
“You don’t have to get terrorized or terrorize your child,” she said. “Just make sure you treat that abrasion very seriously.”
Another attendee said in a joking way that listening to the lecture gave him a similar feeling that he had after watching “Jaws,” a Steven Spielberg film about shark attacks in the water.
“Let’s put it this way: I think it’s like anything in life,” Colwell said, noting that she lived in Bethesda and had to drive back home that night.
“It’s probably more dangerous for me to drive back to Bethesda than for you to eat a raw oyster,” she said. The key is about knowing the risks of an infection and what to do when people see symptoms, she concluded.
Former state senator Bernie Fowler, middle, of Prince Frederick and others listen as retired physician John Roache of Mechanicsville, not pictured, speaks Friday evening at a lecture given by Rita Colwell, a professor from the University of Maryland who specializes in infectious diseases.