Beware of Bacteria as Water Warms

Vibriosis causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the U.S. every year. People with vibriosis become infected by consuming raw or undercooked seafood or exposing a wound to seawater. Most infections occur from May through October when water temperatures are warmer.

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COURT HOUSE - When it comes to proper wound care, the notion that saltwater can help heal wounds faster is nothing more than a myth. 

According to the Wound Care Society and a Cape May County Health Department official, while, to most people, saltwater seems like an optimal choice for wound cleaning, there are dozens of bacteria in the water, some that can do substantial damage.

As the nearby waters warm-up, especially those in the back bay areas, these bacteria take on a more active presence and can cause illnesses that not only affect open wounds but can also show up after consuming raw oysters and undercooked seafood.

Naturally Occurring Bacteria

“The Vibrio bacteria is a naturally occurring bacteria found in warm waters,” explained Natalie Sendler, director of nursing, Cape May County Department of Health. “It can also show up in seafood. It can show up in brackish or saltwater, which means it can show up in the back bay waters since they tend to get warmer than the ocean.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about a dozen Vibrio species can cause human illness, known as vibriosis. People with compromised immune systems, especially those with chronic liver disease, are more likely to get vibriosis. 

About 80% of the infections occur between May-October, according to Sendler and the CDC.

Eating raw seafood, particularly oysters, and exposing open wounds to saltwater or brackish water can increase a person’s chance of getting vibriosis. 

Essentially, vibriosis is a flesh-eating disease that can cause an open wound to become infected. Eating infected seafood can cause illness that can lead to amputation, sepsis, or even death, according to Sendler.

Few Cases in Cape May County

For the most part, in Cape May County, instances of Vibrio are sporadic. There have been “less than five cases in the county over the past few years,” Sendler said. 

It has been a reportable disease (to the CDC) since 1989, when Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas joined with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to establish a surveillance system. 

“Even if a tourist gets sick, for instance, and comes down with the illness in another county, we will be notified that it occurred,” Sendler explained, “and then we take the appropriate steps.”

Sendler said when a county resident is found to have vibriosis, they will investigate how and why the exposure happened, and then educate the person about how to prevent it. 

Vibrio bacteria can also cause a skin infection when an open wound is exposed to saltwater or brackish water, which can lead to intensive care or limb amputationAbout one in five people with this type of infection die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill.

“Wear a waterproof bandage,” Sendler advised, “or, better yet, stay out of the water until your wound heals.”

Vibrio Concentrate in Oyster Tissue

Vibrio bacteria naturally inhabit coastal waters, like the Delaware Bay, where oysters live. Because oysters feed by filtering water, bacteria can concentrate in their tissues. 

“When someone eats raw or undercooked oysters, viruses or bacteria that may be in the oyster can cause illness,” Sendler pointed out. “Hot sauce and lemon juice don’t kill Vibrio bacteria. Drinking alcohol while eating oysters doesn’t kill Vibrio bacteria either. Cooking oysters properly kills harmful bacteria.”

If seafood is eaten at a local restaurant, the seafood tags are held by the restaurant until it is determined the cause of the bacteria. During the investigation, the restaurant could be closed for business.

The CDC estimates that vibriosis causes 80,000 illnesses each year in the U.S. About 52,000 of these illnesses are estimated to be the result of eating contaminated food.

The most commonly reported species - Vibrio parahaemolyticus - is estimated to cause 45,000 illnesses each year in the U.S., according to the CDC.

Get Tested at Hospital to be Sure

When ingested, Vibrio bacteria can cause watery diarrhea, often accompanied by abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills, according to Sendler. Usually, these symptoms occur within 24 hours of ingestion and last about three days. Severe illness is rare and typically occurs in people with a weakened immune system.

“These symptoms can indicate other illnesses, so you really need to go to the hospital and get tested,” Sendler said. “If your body is healthy, it will clear itself of the infection, but if you have HIV, cancer, diabetes, or other immune system diseases, it can infect your blood and become fatal.”

To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.

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