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Health department: Dangers of bacteria in local waters exaggerated

August 6, 2014
Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

A naturally occurring bacteria in warm saltwater and brackish water environments is causing a scare to some beach goers across Southwest Florida.

Some recent media coverage has provided inaccurate details on what is scientifically known as "Vibrio vulnificus," according to officials with the Florida Department of Health in Lee County. The reports intensified a fear factor to anyone who may be leery about going swimming within the Gulf waters of Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Captiva or other beachfronts.

"Vibro is not a flesh-eating bacteria. It is a term that was coined by the media and inaccurately disseminated and spread throughout the world," said Diane Holm, health community coordinator for agency in Lee. "Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria that creates an infection of the blood that is totally treatable by antibiotics."

Holm is unaware of any problem with vibrio vulnificus in local waters. She said she has received many calls from people who are concerned after hearing or reading the reports, spread nationally in "flesh-eating bacteria" stories.

However, that phrase is not a medical term.

"Vibrio vulnificus is bacteria that is no different than Staph(ylococcus) or Strep(ococcus)," said Holm. Holm compared "Vibrio" to "stronger than a cockroach" due to its survival mechanism throughout time.

Fact Box

Health department advisory: Enjoy Lee County waters with standard precautions

The Florida Department of Health in Lee County urges people spending time around the water to enjoy it as usual while following standard precautions to stay safe from preventable injuries and illnesses including drowning, bacterial infections and amebic infections.

Despite the recent media frenzy, bacterial infections caused by Vibrio vulnificus are rare, estimated to affect only 1 percent of the population. Contrary to some of those news reports, when this bacterium enters through an open wound in the skin, it does not cause necrotizing fasciitis (flesh eating). As with any bacteria that enters through the skin, infection prevention includes proper wound cleansing, and keeping the wound clean and dry until it heals. Prevention of gastro-intestinal illness caused by Vibrio vulnificus is not eating raw shell fish, such as oysters.

Vibrio vulnificus can be successfully treated with antibiotics when caught early. When infection does occur, it spreads into the blood stream and causes septicemia. Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, especially liver disease, are estimated to be 80 times more likely to develop bloodstream infections.

Recreational water's greatest risk is drowning. Standard water safety precautions for drowning and infection include taking the following steps:

* Don't swim in saltwater or brackish water with an open wound to avoid bacterial infections

* Don't eat raw shellfish, including oysters

* Wear a nose clip while swimming and enjoying water sports in warm fresh water to avoid amebic entry

* Avoid digging in or stirring up the sediment while taking part in water related activities in shallow, warm freshwater

* Never swim alone

* Adults should actively watch children while in or near water

* Wear a life jacket when boating and when swimming with limited skills

* Learn to swim

* Learn water rescue skills and CPR

Drowning is the leading cause of death for children under 5 years old, and second leading cause of death for children 14 and under. Residential swimming pools are the site of most pre-school age drownings caused by lack of adequate supervision.

Amebic infections caused by Naegleria fowleri from exposure to natural fresh water are extremely rare, estimated to affect only 30 people between 2004 and 2013. This ameba causes death in nearly all patients.

Swim lessons are available through city and county parks and recreation departments and the YMCA in Lee County. CPR certifications can be earned through the American Red Cross or American Heart Association.

For more information go to

"It consistently evolves and finds a way to live. It's in our environment, in our water and is not any more prevalent than it used to be," she said.

Since 2007, the Centers for Disease Control have requested that DOH agencies track numbers of patients infected by that particular bacteria. Those stats increase the hype.

"We know that staph and strep infections are far, far more numerous, but they are not tracked," Holm said.

According to website (click 'Information on Vibrio vulnificus'), there have been 13 cases and three deaths reported in Florida for 2014 to date. The chart is updated every Friday.

By comparison the site shows there were 41 cases and 13 deaths in 2013. While there are less than five more months remaining in this calendar year, last year's numbers reveal more than three times the cases and more than four times the deaths.

Newsroom tweets have offered opinions. One stated, "Lee county doesn't put out warnings for ("Vibrio") due to the fact it probably hurts the economy."

"That is totally untrue," said Holm. "We do put out warnings when there is something to warn about."

DOH reports say that bacteria can enter the human body from contact with open wounds or sores, or by eating raw shellfish, like raw oysters. Persons with low or compromised immune systems are more susceptible to infection.

Holm said case studies indicate "Vibrio vulnificus" can survive in water that is as cold as 58 degrees.

"It does appear that the quantity of bacterium increases with the temperature of the water," she pointed out.

If anyone gets a cut while in the water, Holm advised they cleanse the wound properly with soap and water, then keep it covered and dry until it heals. If needed, anti-bacterial lotion or cream can be applied.

"We don't want to totally downplay this, because it is a bacteria that does cause a serious infection if people choose not to treat it," she said. "There is treatment for it, and people should get (wounds, cuts) treated if there are signs of infection."

To learn more about water quality or Vibrio vulnificus, go to or for more information.

"It's disappointing that media hype about a naturally occuring bacteria that hasn't changed in our environment is causing people to vacation elsewhere," said Holm.



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