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Florida sees a rise in flesh-eating bacteria amid post-Ian concerns

Health officials have warned people that the post-hurricane environment — including warm, standing water — could pose a danger from the potentially deadly bacteria.

The state Department of Health reports that as of Friday there have been 65 cases of vibrio vulnificus infections and 11 deaths this year. That compares with 34 cases and 10 deaths reported in 2021

Parts of Florida hit hardest by Hurricane Ian are seeing nearly double the normal number of infections from a flesh-eating bacteria that thrives in brackish floodwaters.

According to the Florida Department of Health, the state has seen 65 cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections and 11 deaths from the bacterium in 2022.

Lee County, where Ian made landfall on Sept 28 as a category 4 storm, accounts for 45% of the cases.

In 2021, the state reported 34 cases and 10 deaths. Health officials didn't give a breakdown of how many of the cases were before or after Ian struck.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Health told CNN that the number of reported infections has already started to decrease since the hurricane hit.

Severe illness from Vibrio vulnificus infections is rare. This is the first time the number of cases in Florida has risen above 50 since 2008, when the Department of Health began reporting data on infections.

Ian brought more than 17 inches of rain over Southwest Florida, with storm surges of up to 12 feet.

In Lee County, which reported 29 cases and four deaths from the bacteria, health officials warned people that the post-hurricane environment — including warm, standing water — could pose a danger from the potentially deadly bacteria.

“Flood waters and standing waters following a hurricane pose many risks, including infectious diseases such as vibrio vulnificus,” the county health department said in a news release Oct. 3 that urged the public to take precautions.

Health officials said that people with open wounds, cuts or scratches can be exposed to the bacteria through contact with sea water or brackish water. People with open wounds should avoid such water and seek medical care immediately if an infection is apparent.

Infections can lead to skin breakouts and ulcers. But for those with weakened immune systems from medication or chronic disease, the infection can become life-threatening if the bacteria enter the bloodstream, leading to symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal cramping, vomiting, fever and chills.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that Vibrio vulnificus lives in warm seawater and is a type of foodborne illness-causing bacteria called "halophilic" because they require salt to survive.

The bacteria population increases during the warmer summer months and may also see a boost after sewage spills into coastal waters, as it did during Ian.

Those who do come into contact with floodwaters should immediately wash and clean all wounds. You should seek medical care if infections show signs of infection such as redness, oozing or swelling.

Overall risk will decrease as the Vibrio vulnificus population shrinks in late October, when Florida's hot weather wanes.