An increase in infections with a rare flesh-eating bacteria was reported in Florida in the days after Hurricane Ian due to catastrophic flooding from the storm.
There have been 65 cases of Vibrio vulnificus infection and 11 deaths in the state this year as of Friday, according to the Florida Department of Health, up from 34 cases and 10 deaths reported across the state in all of 2021.
Many of the infections are in Lee County. Ian made landfall as a Category 4 storm on September 28 in Lee County, which includes Fort Myers and Sanibel Island in Southwest Florida.
The Florida Department of Health in Lee County warned residents of the risks of Vibrio vulnificus on October 3.
“As the post-storm situation evolves, DOH-Lee is urging the public to take precautions against infection and illness caused by Vibrio vulnificus,” spokesperson Tammy Soliz told CNN in an email Tuesday.
“DOH-Lee is observing an abnormal increase in cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections as a result of exposure to the flood waters and standing waters following Hurricane Ian. Since September 29, 2022, 26 cases of Vibrio vulnificus associated with Hurricane Ian have been reported to DOH-Lee. All 26 cases had wound infectious with exposure to Hurricane Ian flood waters that occurred from the storm-surge entering their homes or during post-storm clean-up. There have been six deaths among Lee County residents.”
Before the storm, there were two cases of Vibrio vulnificus in Lee County and 37 cases in the state, according to data from the Florida Department of Health.
“What we’re seeing with our trends is, cases are actually declining [since the storm], which is a very good thing,” Florida Department of Health spokesperson Jae Williams said Tuesday.
Vibrio vulnificus is a naturally occurring bacterium that lives in warm saltwater and infects humans through the consumption of undercooked shellfish and through skin wounds.
The infections are “very prevalent with flooding,” Williams said. Ian “brought an astronomical record amount of flooding. Not all hurricanes bring that kind of flooding.”
The Florida Department of Health pushed out information on floodwater safety before, during and after the storm through social media messages and radio ads, Williams said. The fact sheet warns people with open cuts and wounds to avoid skin contact with floodwaters.
Symptoms of Vibrio infection, or vibriosis, include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills. Treatment is not always needed, and severe illness is rare, but doctors prescribe antibiotics in more persistent cases, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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In extreme cases, the bacteria can lead to blood infections, blistering skin lesions, amputation or death.
“Vibriosis causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the United States every year,” the CDC says on its website.
Most at risk for severe illness and death from Vibrio vulnificus are people with a weakened immune system or those with liver disease, according to the CDC.