Vibrio vulnificus: The deadly bacteria in Florida waters

News G logoBy Pat Fallon |

In late October, Kelly Johnson, 24, of St. Augustine, was treated for what is being identified as a dangerous water born bacteria present in Florida waters.

Although she is recovering, the bacteria known as Vibrio Vulnificus has been recognized to be the source of up to nine deaths and said to have infected 35 people in the state this year, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Vibrio Vulnificus is one of the world’s most deadly bacteria. It is known to be present in salty or brackish waters of warmer temperature. Though the bacteria has been making news lately due to the recent fatalities resulting from infection, Vibrio Vulnificus has been present in Florida state waters for years.

“I always go in the ocean after work, but after I had heard about the bacteria on the news I kept out of the water for about a week. After that, I started going to swim again,” Johnson said. “One day after my swim I started feeling a really bad pain in my ear and had noticed that there had been a wound from a Q-tip or something that had seemed to have gotten infected.”

After a few days of pain, Johnson was driven to the hospital by her sister Meghan to seek medical attention for the wound. The doctors presumed the cause of the infection was most likely a result of Vibrio Vulnificus and prescribed Johnson two forms of antibiotics to treat the infection and she is now doing well.

“It was a scary experience. I couldn’t hear. My whole ear canal was blocked and I thought it would be a long term problem. Everything is fine now, but I was surprised that we had never heard of the bacteria before. I had no idea it had even been a problem in Florida for years,” said Johnson.

Cases like Johnson’s are not uncommon. According to the Florida Department of Health, the state sees an average of 50 cases involving the bacteria.

Professionals say it is uncommon to contract the bacteria, but that people with weak immune systems and preexisting health conditions are much more at risk to the bacteria entering the blood stream and contracting the bug and its side effects. Even so, Florida is a hub for the bacteria. With the amount of retirees and people in the state with preexisting health conditions, the bacteria has posed a threat to Floridians for years.

In 2011, there were a reported 35 cases of Vibrio Vulnficus and 11 were fatal. This year’s totals have met 2011’s by recently reaching 35 cases for the year 2013. So far 9 of them have been fatal.

It is possible to become infected by ingestion or wound infection, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Certain shellfish, especially oysters, contain the bacteria. Consuming under cooked shellfish near areas known to have contact with the bacteria could be dangerous.

An open wound coming into direct contact with contaminated water can also lead to infection. If the Vibrio Vulnificus infects a wound, it may spread quickly and pose a threat to one’s life.

Side effects consist of pain and infection, diarrhea, vomiting, sores, and fever and worsen without treatment.

Although it is a concern, many St. Augustine residents aren’t letting the bacteria put a damper on their daily lives.

Nicole Tharp, an employee at Stewart’s Seafood Market on Anastasia Island, explains that there have been no known cases or concerns from customers regarding the seafood that they sell.

“We haven’t gotten any questions about the bacteria and haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary in regards to both our seafood products and our customers. It’s a small town and I haven’t heard of anyone getting the bacteria or anyone talking about it, except for on the news,” said Tharp.

Beachgoers seem to have the same attitude as well. St. Augustine surfer and Flagler College senior John Kersey hasn’t let the news scare him either. “It is definitely in the back of my mind when paddling out or going swimming, but it is without a doubt not going to stop me from surfing if the weather is nice and the waves are good,” said Kersey.

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