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Beachgoers Beware: Danger Lurking off Florida’s Coasts

First Posted: Jun 11, 2015 05:03 PM EDT
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Photo : Paula Santos

There's a new danger lurking along Florida beaches. No, not sharks, although with so many tourists bobbing in the water, someone's bound to be nibbled.

The new threat is in the form of bacteria that, like the summer swimmers it preys upon, simply love the warm water.

Vibrio vulnificus has already infected at least seven people, killing two since the start of 2015. The bacterium, which has been mistakenly labeled "flesh-eating," is in the same family as cholera, which like the vulnificus species is highly treatable but can pack a deadly punch among certain individuals.

V. vulnificus is "halophilic," meaning it requires salt, which it finds in abundance along Florida's shores. The bacterium grows the fastest in warm summer waters, with an optimum temperature preference between 68 and 95 degrees. And this isn't the first year V. vulnificus has reared its ugly little head. There were 32 cases last year in the Sunshine State, resulting in seven deaths.

In healthy individuals, the bacterium typically causes vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping. But in those with preexisting medical conditions (especially chronic liver disease) or compromised immune systems, it can infect the bloodstream, resulting in fever and chills, septic shock and blistering skin lesions. About half of the cases involving infection of the bloodstream result in death.

It can also cause serious complications for those with open skin wounds who choose to go for a dip, causing a breakdown in skin tissue and nasty ulcerations.

But there are other ways to acquire V. vulnificus besides swimming in warm salty water. Eating raw seafood, particularly oysters, can also result in infection, which conjures the old saying, "Never eat raw oysters during months lacking an R."

If you find yourself craving shellfish during those warm summer months, the CDC urges that you boil or steam them thoroughly, especially if you fall into any of the high-risk categories. Refrigerate promptly after cooking and wear gloves when handling raw shellfish.

And if you have a gaping wound, perhaps you should stick to the pool.

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