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New study suggests flesh-eating bacteria is spreading to East Coast waters

Last updated: Jun 28, 2019

A new study published in the June 2019 journal Annals of Internal Medicine shows that warmer waters may be driving up the cases of Vibriosis, a flesh-eating bacterial infection, in regions of the country, including New Jersey’s coastal waters, where it typically would not be found.

In the past two years, five cases linked to Vibrio vulnificus – a skin and muscle tissue-destroying bacteria contracted by eating raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters, or handling contaminated seafood while sporting an open wound – have been tied to Delaware Bay, which borders southern New Jersey and Delaware.  The study shows that water temperatures have been on the rise in recent years, creating favorable conditions for Vibrio.

Who’s at Risk?

“Anyone can get sick with a Vibrio vulnificus infection, but people with a compromised immune system or liver disease are more likely to get an infection and severe complications,” says Daniel Hart, MD, Medical Director of Infectious Diseases at Summit Medical Group. “If you have a cut, sore or broken skin or are immunocompromised and notice changes or the appearance of infection after spending time in the water, seek medical attention promptly as early medical intervention is key to achieve the best outcomes."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that Vibrio vulnificus causes about 205 infections in the United States every year.

Symptoms of a Vibrio vulnificus infection include:

  • When ingested, Vibrio bacteria can cause watery diarrhea, often accompanied by stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills. Usually these symptoms occur within 24 hours of ingestion and last about 3 days.
  • Skin infection after an open wound is exposed to brackish water, a mixture of fresh and salt water, often found where rivers meet the sea.
  • Bloodstream infection, with fever, chills, dangerously low blood pressure, blistering skin lesion, and sometimes death.

Infection is diagnosed when Vibrio bacteria are found in the wound, blood, or stool of an ill person.  Treatment is not necessary in mild gastrointestinal cases, but even mild skin infections should be treated with oral antibiotics. Although there is no evidence that antibiotics decrease the severity or duration of illness, they are sometimes used in severe or prolonged illnesses. Patients should drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids lost through diarrhea.

Prevention

The CDC offers the following tips to reduce your risk of Vibriosis:

  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish. Cook them before eating.
  • Always wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw shellfish.
  • Avoid contaminating cooked shellfish with raw shellfish and its juices.
  • Stay out of salt water or brackish water if you have a wound (including cuts and scrapes). Cover your wound with a waterproof bandage if there’s a possibility it could come into contact with salt water or brackish water, raw seafood, or raw seafood juices. 
  • Wash wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and water if they have been exposed to seawater or raw seafood or its juices.
  • If you develop a skin infection, tell your medical provider if your skin has come into contact with salt water or brackish water, raw seafood, or raw seafood juices.
  • Before cooking, discard any shellfish with open shells. And, only eat shellfish that open during cooking. Throw out any shellfish that do not open fully after cooking.

If you are in a group more likely to get Vibriosis:

  • Wear clothes and shoes that can protect you from cuts and scrapes when in salt water or brackish water.
  • Wear protective gloves when handling raw seafood.
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