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Flesh-Eating Bacteria Cases Should Not Stop People From Going To The Beach, Expert Says

The so-called "flesh-eating" disease, while dangerous, is rare.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Recent reported cases of flesh-eating bacteria infections from the Gulf of Mexico may have some people wary to spend the holiday weekend by the water.

But infectious disease expert Dr. Vilma Vega said there is no reason for everyone to avoid the beach.

She acknowledged the so-called “flesh-eating” condition known as necrotizing fasciitis is dangerous, even deadly. That was the case with a 77 year-old woman who died in June after she scraped her leg while walking near the beach on Anna Maria Island.

But Vega said the disease is rare and that most people's immune systems can fight the bacteria that cause it, which include group A Streptococcus bacteria and Vibrio.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Vibrio bacteria can be found in coastal waterways. Group A Strep, however, is commonly found in the human throat or on the skin, so there are a variety of situations in which a person could develop an infection.

While bacteria most commonly enter the skin through open wounds, blunt trauma can also result in infection.

Dr. Vegasaid people with weakened immune systems, including senior citizens and people with liver disease are most at-risk.

“Those groups of individuals who are more at-risk should avoid things like brackish waters, or going into warm saltwater, hot tubs, swimming pools, especially with open wounds,” she said. “Anyone with an open wound shouldn’t be swimming in those areas anyway.”

Vega said eating raw or undercooked seafood like oysters or sushi could also put immunosuppressed individuals at risk.

Vega said proper hand-washing is important for everyone to stay safe, and that if someone were to get cut while in the water, they should disinfect the wound right away and keep an eye on it.

"And make sure that if you develop any symptoms of sudden onset of fevers, chills, redness in an arm or a leg, or pain which continues to get worse, immediately seek medical care,” she said.

Two other local cases this year were treated with surgery.

According to the CDC, approximately 700 to 1,200 cases occur each year in the United States.

Copyright 2019 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.