As Florida continues to recover from Hurricane Ian, state health officials are warning that the deadly storm surge that came with it has led to a spike in infections caused by potentially fatal "flesh-eating" bacteria in the floodwaters.
How many cases have there been?
According to the Florida Department of Public Health, there have been a record 65 infections this year caused by Vibrio vulnificus — a species of bacteria found in warm, brackish water — including 29 in Lee County, where Ian made landfall on Sept. 28 as a Category 4 storm. There have been 11 confirmed deaths associated with the bacterium in the state this year, including four recorded in Lee County since Ian came ashore.
"Sewage spills, like those caused from Hurricane Ian, may increase bacteria levels,” a warning from the state’s health department reads.
How do the infections occur?
The infections are usually caused by eating raw or undercooked oysters and shellfish, but they may also occur when the bacteria enter the body through cuts or open wounds.
“You either eat it, it gets into your ears or it gets in your blood through a wound,” Anthony Ouellette, professor of biology and chemistry at Jacksonville University, told the Fort Myers News-Press.
And while most cases are mild, many people with Vibrio vulnificus infections “require intensive care or limb amputations,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “And about one in five people with this infection die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill.”
What are the signs and symptoms of an infection?
According to the CDC, common symptoms include “watery diarrhea,” often accompanied by stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, chills and fever.
Vibrio vulnificus can cause necrotizing fasciitis, a severe skin infection in which the flesh around an open wound dies, which is why it is described as “flesh-eating” bacteria. However, necrotizing fasciitis can be caused by more than one type of bacteria.
People who have underlying health conditions, such as those with weakened immune systems or chronic liver disease, are more likely to get an infection and have severe complications, health officials say.
Still, Vibrio vulnificus infections are rare. Of the 65 confirmed cases in Florida this year, nearly half came as a result of Ian.
The Florida Department of Health said it has seen “an abnormal increase in cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections as a result of exposure to the floodwaters and standing waters following Hurricane Ian.”
How can you protect yourself?
The health department recommends that you stay out of the water if you have open wounds, cuts or scratches, particularly if you are immunocompromised.
“Water and wounds do not mix,” a note on the health department’s website reads. “Do not enter the water if you have fresh cuts or scrapes.”
If you do come in contact with floodwaters, “immediately clean wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and clean or bottled water,” the department adds. And individuals who are immunocompromised “should wear proper foot protection to prevent cuts and injury caused by rocks and shells on the beach.”