Beware of Flesh-Eating Bacteria at the Beach

A Texas man is in critical condition and facing the loss of his leg after a swim at the beach. But his attacker wasn't a shark -- it was flesh-eating bacteria.

Flesh-eating bacteria are rare but devastating. But there are other, much more common types of bacteria that can make swimmers sick, too, and scientists are finding increasing amounts of them in our beach waters.

While enjoying his beach vacation July 8, Steve Gilpatrick took a brief swim in the Gulf of Mexico off of Galveston, Texas. A rare bacterium entered his system through a diabetic ulcer on his leg, and now he's fighting for his life after the bacterium began literally eating away his leg. But his wife said it looks like he's going to make it.

"Three surgeries so far, he's cut from his upper thigh and almost to the groin, down to the tops of his toes. So it's going to be a very long recovery," Linda Gilpatrick said.

The type of bacteria that attacked Gilpatrick occurs naturally and thrives in warm salt water, especially during the summer.

"Actual infections are quite rare," said Johnny Peterson, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University of Texas' Medical Branch. "I believe there may be 300 cases a year."

Summer beach closings are typically due to the presence of common bacteria from human and animal waste in the water.

The number of beaches presenting potential health threats increases each year, and a forthcoming Natural Resources Defense Council report is expected to show yet another rise.

"I think it is discouraging that we're not moving to find the source of beach water pollution and addressing them," said Nancy Stone, director of the NRDC.

According to the environmental group, one major culprit is overdevelopment, which removes natural filters like wetlands and trees. Especially after a heavy rain, waste water can run undiluted down to the beach and pollute the water.

If this news has you more inclined to take a dip in the pool, beware: Chlorine controls bacteria, but chlorine-resistant parasites may be on the rise.

Michael Beach, director of Healthy Swimming for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned, "We -- the CDC -- hear of about 30 to 40 outbreaks associated with recreational water use each year. But we need to keep perspective, which is that hundreds of millions of people are visiting the beach, the lake and the pools each year and most of these people don't get sick."

Helpful Tips for Beachgoers:

Call or visit the Web site of the county health department associated with the beach you're visiting before you go to make sure its open.

Choose a beach that has supervision -- like lifeguards. Chances are it gets tested regularly.

Don't swim the day after a heavy rain: The storm water runoff often contains pollution.

Stay out of the water if you have open cuts and a weak immune system -- it's the only way to ensure staying safe.