CDC Issues Warning to Be on Alert for Flesh-Eating Bacteria

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a national health alert warning doctors and health care workers to be aware of infections from a flesh-eating bacterium, Vibrio vulnificus, that has been found in multiple states this year.

The agency noted that an estimated 80,000 Vibrio bacteria illnesses each year are reported in the United States, including Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio alginolyticus. However, the deadliest one appears to be Vibrio vulnificus, which officials say can sometimes cause death within one or two days, although the CDC noted that only about 150 to 200 such infections are reported to the federal agency every year.

“People who are at increased risk for V. vulnificus infection should exercise caution when engaging in coastal water activities,” the CDC stated on Sept. 1. “Prompt treatment is crucial to reduce mortality from severe V. vulnificus infection.”

Although such infections tend to be reported in the Gulf Coast, the CDC noted that infections have risen about eightfold between 1988 and 2018 in the eastern United States.

Vibrio bacteria generally live in salt water or brackish coastal waters. People can become infected after exposure to the organism, such as by eating undercooked or raw shellfish or through an open wound, a cut, or a bite that has been in contact with infected water or shellfish.

V. vulnificus wound infections have a short incubation period and are characterized by necrotizing skin and soft tissue infection,” the CDC also stated. In some cases, people may also develop bleeding blisters. If left untreated, infection can spread throughout the body and cause blood poisoning.

Many people who contract an infection “require intensive care or limb amputations,” and the possibility of necrotizing fasciitis is why the bacterium is called “flesh-eating.”

The CDC recommends that people stay away from brackish or salt water if they have an open wound and should leave the water immediately if they receive a cut while swimming. It noted that wounds should be treated with a waterproof bandage and washed with soap and clean water.

Initiate Treatment Promptly

It also stated that people who believe they have an infection after swimming should get treatment quickly, as they will have a better chance of survival. The bacteria also have developed some resistance to antibiotics, while 50 percent of infections don’t respond to treatment, other officials have said.

“Initiate treatment promptly. Early antibiotic therapy and early surgical intervention improve survival,” the CDC stated. “Do not wait for consultation with an infectious disease specialist or laboratory confirmation of V. vulnificus infection to initiate treatment.”

The CDC advised doctors and health care workers to “consider V. vulnificus as a possible cause of infection in wounds that were exposed to coastal waters, especially in patients at higher risk for Vibrio infection, including those with underlying health conditions such as liver disease (including alcohol-associated liver cirrhosis), diabetes, and immunocompromising conditions.”

“Ask the patient or family about relevant exposures, including whether they entered coastal water with an open wound; acquired a scratch or a cut while in coastal water; or had open-wound contact with raw or undercooked seafood,” it advised.

The federal health agency also warned against eating raw oysters and other shellfish, saying that they should be thoroughly cooked before consumption. People should also wash their hands with soap and water after handling them.

hurricane idalia
A flooded street is seen near the Steinhatchee marina after Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida on Aug. 30, 2023. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

This summer, health officials in New York, Connecticut, and North Carolina reported multiple fatal or severe V. vulnificus infections, while most infections this year have occurred in Florida. At least five have died in those three states, officials have said.

‘Shouldn’t Be Taken Lightly’

The CDC notice also advised local officials to tell tourists and residents about the risk of V. vulnificus, including by putting up signs on coastal areas and beaches. Hurricanes tend to bring considerable amounts of ocean water onto land, where it then mixes with rainwater or other freshwater.

There have been concerns that Hurricane Idalia, which hit northwestern Florida last month, will bring a rise in Vibrio infections because it can be present in floodwaters. State officials in Florida have issued warnings about the pathogen.

The potentially deadly bacteria “shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Florida Health Department press secretary Jae Williams told media outlets over the weekend. “It needs to be treated with proper respect—the same way we respect alligators and rattlesnakes.”

After Hurricane Ian slammed Florida’s Gulf Coast last year, officials reported that 38 people were infected with V. vulnificus. At least 11 people died, and one person had a leg amputated, officials said.

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