Alabama Department of Public Health warns of flesh-eating bacteria danger

The coast of Dauphin Island (Photo: Getty Images)

MOBILE, Ala. – The Alabama Department of Public Health is warning people with cuts, abrasions and certain health conditions to avoid the water after reports of three cases of flesh-eating bacteria.

Vibrio vulnificus is found in lakes, rivers, along the coast and in other warm, brackish bodies of water. The bacteria can lead to destructive soft-tissue infections and other illnesses.

“Most soft-tissue infections occur with either injury or with conditions such as poorly controlled diabetes or low immunity. However, sometimes otherwise healthy people can develop a skin infection after skin injury and being exposed to natural bodies of water. Some bacteria can cause more severe infections than others,” said Dr. Karen Landers, Assistant State Health Officer, ADPH.

According to our newspartners AL.com, three cases of flesh-eating bacteria have been reported in Alabama since March. One case involved the consumption of raw oysters from another state, the other two people – both of whom had open wounds – contracted the bacteria in water near Mobile Bay, the Mississippi sound and Dauphin Island areas. All of the victims have recovered from their illnesses.

Dr. Landers cautions the public to be aware of the risks involved in bodies of water. “If you have open wounds, cuts, abrasions and sores, stay out of the water. Persons with low immune systems, cancer, diabetes, liver disease, and other chronic conditions should avoid eating raw or undercooked seafood, especially oysters.”

What is vibriosis?

  • Vibrios illness is caused by bacteria found naturally in seawater environments, like bay or gulf waters.
  • Vibrio infections occur with exposure to seawater or consumption of raw or undercooked contaminated seafood.
  • Vibriosis includes 2 different types of infections: Vibrio parahaemolyticus (V. parahaemolyticus) and Vibrio vulnificus (V. vulnificus).

What are the symptoms of vibriosis?

  • General vibrios illness symptoms may include diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, chills, fever, shock, skin lesions, and wound infections.
  • V. parahaemolyticus typically causes non-bloody diarrhea.
  • V. vulnificus can cause in people who are immunocompromised, for example liver disease or cancer, to be at higher risk for serious complications. For high-risk people, V. vulnificus typically infects the bloodstream, causing a life-threatening illness.

How does vibriosis spread?

  • V. parahaemolyticus and V. vulnificus generally are not passed person-to-person.
  • Vibriosis infections occur when people eat raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters.
  • Less commonly, vibriosis can cause an infection in the skin when an open wound is exposed to warm seawater.

How do I stop the spread of Vibriosis?

  • Most V. parahaemolyticus and V. vulnificus in the United States can be prevented by:
    • Thoroughly cooking seafood, especially oysters.
    • Avoiding exposure of open wounds to warm seawater.
    • Closing oyster beds when an outbreak is traced to an oyster bed by health officials recommend, until vibrios levels are lower.

What should I do if I suspect I have vibriosis?

  • Contact your healthcare provider to determine if you have contracted vibriosis.
  • For most cases of V. parahaemolyticus infection treatment is not necessary. There is no evidence that antibiotic treatment decreases the severity or the length of the illness.  Patients should drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids lost through diarrhea.
  • For V. vulnificus cases, treatment should be initiated immediately because antibiotics improve survival. Aggressive attention should be given to the wound site and amputation of the infected limb is sometimes necessary.