Texas Beachgoers Should Watch Out for Flesh-Eating Bacteria: Health Expert

A health expert in Galveston, Texas, is warning people about the possibility of flesh-eating bacterial infections along the coast.

In an interview with local ABC affiliate KTRK-TV, Dr. Alfred Scott Lea said the Galveston community should be alert about the bacterial infection known as Vibrio vulnificus. Lea is a professor of infectious disease at University of Texas-Medical Branch (UTMB) in the Galveston Bay area, and he said they see at least six to eight cases each year at the university's hospital.

Vibrio vulnificus can be caused from eating raw or undercooked seafood such as oysters. It's also naturally present in brackish and salt water. Galveston lies on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and the area has been a documented site for Vibrio vulnificus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in addition to eating contaminated seafood, Vibrio infection can occur through an open wound on someone's flesh.

The CDC's website also notes that Vibrio vulnificus infections in wounds can have serious consequences, such as requiring intensive care or limb amputations. About 1 in 5 people with the infection dies, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill, according to the health agency.

"We typically see Vibrio from late June, early July, to probably later [in] October," Dr. Lea told KTRK-TV of the occurrence of infections from the bacteria at UTMB, which reportedly documents some of the highest number of occurrences in the country of Vibrio vulnificus. "That's the season, and that's when the tourists are here, too."

There was only one case of Vibrio infection in the Galveston area in 2020, according to the Galveston County Health District. However, there have been two cases of the infection this year, neither of which resulted in death.

People with pre-existing conditions should be especially careful. This includes people with diabetes, liver disease, cancer or other immune-suppressing conditions, as well as anyone who has had a major recent surgery or organ transplant.

Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County Local Health Authority, once said in a 2017 warning about Vibrio vulnificus: "Immune compromising conditions put people at a far greater risk of infection from any source. So, it's not surprising that cases of Vibrio vulnificus we've investigated at the Galveston County Health District involved such conditions."

Dr. Lea said anyone who suspects they might have the aggressive infection should be treated immediately.

"They need to let their healthcare provider know that they have been in the water along the coast so that the physicians know to be watching for Vibrio," Dr. Lea said during the KTRK-TV interview.

"It takes a different kind of antibiotic than what the physician would ordinarily issue, and the only key that the physician will pick up on is that they've been in that estuary or brackish water (while) fishing and shrimping or crabbing."

That makes it important to be aware of the symptoms of the infection, which can appear 12 to 72 hours after exposure. The CDC outlines the symptoms, which include watery diarrhea; stomach cramping; nausea; vomiting; fever; dangerously low blood pressure; and blistering skin lesions. If it's a wound infection, look for redness; pain; swelling; warmth; discoloration; and discharge.

"It's a serious infection," Lea said. "The worst thing: It's so rapidly progressive, it will pop up and kill a person within 24 hours if you are not careful."

The CDC's website explains how the infection earned its notorious nickname. The page dedicated to the infection reads: "Some Vibrio vulnificus infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection in which the flesh around an open wound dies. Some media reports call this kind of infection 'flesh-eating bacteria,' even though necrotizing fasciitis can be caused by more than one type of bacteria."

A health expert in Texas warned about flesh-eating bacteria. There was only one case of the Vibrio infection in the Galveston area in 2020, but there have been two cases of the infection this year. Universal Images Group via Getty Images