9 Investigates new link to killer bacteria in water

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ORLANDO, Fla. - For the first time ever, a deadly bacteria has been found in the waters off Florida’s coast, and researchers say people need to take precautions.

Vibrio vulnificus lives in brackish waters, increasing in numbers during the spring and summer when the waters are warmest. 

Now, scientists from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute have discovered the bacteria living in Florida’s lagoons and estuaries, cautioning human development may be making the situation worse.

In 2015, 43 people became sick due to vibrio, with 15 dying as a result of infection.

Vibrio, which has mistakenly been called “flesh eating,” does not eat flesh. 

What the bacteria does is enter the body through the consumption of raw and uncooked fish or shellfish or through an open wound on the body. 

“If it is caught early enough, it can be treated with antibiotics. In some cases, it needs to be treated with surgical processes,” said Dr. Peter McCarthy of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.  “I am talking amputation, and if that doesn’t work, it’s a rapid decline.”

Researchers said they have seen fishermen with open wounds on their hands become infected after handling fish.

“These bacteria do live in estuaries throughout the world. However, this was the record of them in this area,” said Gabby Barbarite, who led the research team at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.  “We don’t want to downplay it because it is a very serious bacteria.”

The Harbor Branch team stresses it is still safe to enter the water in places like the Indian River Lagoon. However, they say swimmers and fishermen need to be aware of the bacteria and take steps prevent infection such as not entering the water with open wounds and looking for symptoms of infection after a possible exposure.  If an area on the body becomes “swollen, hot or very painful” after possible exposure, medical treatment should be sought as quickly as possible.

In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report on cases of vibrio vulnificus in Taiwan, concluding that, “exposing open wounds or broken skin to warm salt or brackish water or to raw marine animals harvested from such waters should be avoided.  Patients at high risk should wear protective clothing when handling seafood and not eat raw or improperly cooked seafood.”

While the bacteria is naturally occurring, there is concern that excess runoff into the lagoon is creating a better breeding ground for vibrio. 

Storm water, which would normally be absorbed into the ground, is now flowing at a much greater rate into the lagoon. 

Paved areas provide a direct line for freshwater to enter the lagoon, upsetting the balance of the brackish water and giving vibrio more places to thrive.

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