Warm Weather Brings Rare 'Flesh-Eating' Bacteria to Florida Beaches

PHOTO: A grouping of Vibrio vulnificus bacteria is pictured in this micrograph.Getty Images
A grouping of Vibrio vulnificus bacteria is pictured in this micrograph.

A potentially deadly bacteria that thrives in warm saltwater has infected at least seven people and killed two so far this year in Florida, a state health official said today.

"People can get infected with Vibrio vulnificus when they eat raw shellfish," Florida Health Department spokeswoman Mara Burger said in a statement today. "Since it is naturally found in warm marine waters, people with open wounds can be exposed to Vibrio vulnificus through direct contact with seawater."

The bacteria are particularly prevalent in the summer and grow the fastest between the temperatures of 68 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, health officials said, noting that most cases happen between May and October.

There were 32 reported cases of people infected by the bacteria last year in Florida, including seven deaths, according to the state Health Department.

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If consumed, the bacteria can cause gastroenteritis and in rare cases it can lead to septicemia, or an infection of the blood. If the bacteria infects the body through an open wound, the injury can become necrotic and amputations may become necessary to save a patient's life, experts said. Other symptoms can be lesions or cellulitis, which is a bacterial infection beneath the skin.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following precautions to avoid Vibrio vulnificus infections:

  • Avoid exposing open wounds to warm saltwater, brackish water or to raw shellfish
  • Wear protective clothing when handling raw shellfish
  • Cook shellfish thoroughly and avoid food contamination with juices from raw seafood
  • Eat shellfish promptly after cooking and refrigerate leftovers