(August 10, 2014)

Two recent cases of flesh-eating bacteria — one contracted by a man boating on the Chesapeake Bay — don't signal an uptick of the pathogen in local waters, experts say.

But the cases are a reminder of what the aggressive vibrio vulnificus bacteria can inflict on high-risk populations — the young, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or liver disease that have compromised their immune systems.

The healthy typically have little to worry about.

"Healthy individuals typically do not contract (an infection)," said Kim Reece, head of the Department of Environmental and Aquatic Animal Health at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point. "It's the kind of thing where, if you have a cut and you see it get infected and you've been in the water, it's good to get it checked out."

VIMS is part of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

A recent study indicates that those with pre-existing medical conditions are 80 times more likely to develop blood infections from vibrio vulnificus than are healthy people, health officials said.

"You don't want to take chances," Reece said. "Nobody wants to take chances. If in doubt, ask a physician."

There are several strains of vibrio, which thrive naturally in warm, brackish water. While some are harmless, others are not — one pathogenic strain, vibrio cholerae, causes cholera.

Vibrio vulnificus can cause symptoms ranging from vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain to blistering skin lesions and gangrene. Severe infections can lead to amputations or septicemia, an infection of the bloodstream, that's fatal in half of such cases, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Reece says news reports calling it a "flesh-eating bacteria" are no exaggeration.

"It's a pretty accurate description of what happens to these wounds," she said. "It is pretty aggressive, and it is something you do not want to have. It's nasty."

Last month, a vacationing 66-year-old Maryland man who'd been kayaking, fishing and crabbing on the bay nearly lost his leg to a vibrio infection he contracted after falling and scraping his leg, according to news reports. He was hospitalized for 13 days.

Shortly afterward, a Virginia man swimming in the Potomac River with a scratched leg contracted a vibrio infection that required hospitalization and skin graft surgery.

Uncommon

Vibrio vulnificus infections are more common in the warmer Gulf states than in Virginia, with fewer than 10 cases reported here each year. The state, however, says it's also underreported.

So far this year, six cases of this vibrio strain were reported to the health department, according to state epidemiologist Diane Woolard.

"It's really consistent with what we would expect to see," Woolard said Thursday. "We're not seeing any increase."

Infections can occur in a couple of ways: by eating raw or undercooked shellfish or by getting seawater on an open wound, such as a cut, sore or puncture.

Woolard said none of the six cases in Virginia was related to shellfish consumption, but from exposure to saltwater.

The best prevention, health officials say, is to consume only shellfish that's been thoroughly cooked and to wash an exposed wound right away with soap and water.