Tech & Science

Vibrio Vulnificus Symptoms: 'Flesh-eating' Bacteria Kills Texas Man Who Went Wade Fishing with Open Wounds

An elderly man has died after becoming infected with a deadly flesh-eating bacteria, known as Vibrio vulnificus, while wade fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, Texas authorities said Tuesday.

After coming out of the water, the individual began experiencing severe leg pain and presented to a hospital in Nueces County, Texas, where doctors noticed classic signs of bacterial infection, according to local health officials.

Measures were taken to fight the infection—referred to as vibriosis—and the leg was amputated but the patient passed away a day after being admitted.

“Vibrio bacteria naturally inhabit coastal waters where oysters live,” the Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District said in a statement. “These bacteria present in higher concentrations between May and October when water temperatures are warmer.”

The bacteria can enter the body through skin tears or open wounds, as is the case with the latest death, or by consuming raw or undercooked shellfish.

It can cause severe and life-threatening infections that can lead to septic shock. For those who eat contaminated shellfish, symptoms can include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills and severe pain.

Meanwhile, if the bacteria enters through a wound, symptoms may also include the breakdown of the skin in the infected area or blistering lesions. (Vibrio is not a truly flesh-eating bacteria like streptococcus A, although it is often described as such because the lesions it can cause are similar.)

Vibrio vulnificus is a rare cause of disease, with only around 200 infections occurring in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, about one in four of those infected die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill.

People with compromised immune systems, such as the elderly or those with chronic liver disease, are more at risk of severe complications.

There are several other species of Vibrio bacteria which cause less serious vibriosis infections. The CDC estimates that, in total, vibriosis causes 80,000 illnesses each year in the United States. About 52,000 of these are estimated to be the result of eating contaminated food. The most commonly reported species, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, is thought to cause 45,000 of these illnesses.

Vibrio_vulnificus_01 False color scanning electron micrograph image of Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. CDC/James Gathany

The CDC offers the following advice to reduce your risk of vibriosis infection:

  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish.
  • 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 brackish or salt water if you have a wound (including cuts and scrapes), or cover your wound with a waterproof bandage if there’s a possibility it could come into contact with brackish or salt water, raw seafood, or raw seafood juices. Brackish water is a mixture of fresh and sea water. It is often found where rivers meet the sea.
  • 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 brackish or salt water, raw seafood, or raw seafood juices.
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