EXCLUSIVE: Doctors tell millions of Americans to beware going to beach this Labor Day weekend – a deadly flesh-eating bacteria is on the rise across US coastlines
Millions of Americans are being told to be careful on the beach this Labor Day weekend because of the risk of being infected with a flesh-eating bacteria.
Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that can invade open wounds and cause life-threatening infections, thrives in warm water and has been found on beaches from Florida to New Jersey and as far north as Alaska.
Doctors told DailyMail.com that anyone with an open wound — even a paper cut — should avoid swimming in areas where Vibrio vulnificus has been identified to avoid exposure.
Once confined to the Gulf of Mexico, the bacteria — which thrives in warm and brackish water — has now seeped into new areas due to rising sea temperatures.
In 2023, a total of nine deaths have been reported so far Florida, New York and Connecticut. SScientists fear that Vibrio could achieve this every US coastal state by the year 2040.
Beachgoers are told to be careful this Labor Day weekend because of the risk of being infected with Vibrio vulnificus, a potentially deadly flesh-eating infection. (Image: Locals on Miami Beach, Florida, in March 2021)
The maps above show projections of the future distribution of Vibrio vulnificus, which is being fueled by rising ocean temperatures
Over the Labor Day weekend, half of the US — 163 million people — are expected to travel, with many crowding onto the beach to enjoy the last days of summer.
But some beachgoers may be unknowingly at risk of becoming infected with the bacteria, which coats hard surfaces such as shells, rocks and spines on the sea floor.
When people go swimming with cuts or abrasions, even minor ones, they run the risk of Vibrio vulnificus entering their wounds and eating away at their flesh.
Warning signs appear within hours, with patients experiencing redness and swelling around the site of infection.
Without treatment, this can progress to necrosis – tissue death – and septicemia – a blood infection – putting patients at risk for limb amputations and death.
Prompt administration of antibiotics is essential to treat the infection.
Healthy people have little risk of infection, doctors said, because their immune systems will likely be able to fight off the bacteria.
But people with weaker immune systems — such as diabetics and cancer patients — are at a much higher risk of contracting the disease.
About 30 percent of people who develop an infection from Vibrio vulnificus die from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr. Luis Ostrosky — an infectious disease expert at UTHealth Houston in Texas — warned Labor Day beachgoers that this was a “very, very aggressive bacteria.”
He told DailyMail.com, “If you have any cuts, don’t go in the water.
“You have to be very aware of cutbacks and not go into seawater if you have any.
“If you have a weakened immune system, diabetes or cirrhosis of the liver, it’s really not a good idea to go swimming (in the ocean) right now.”
From before 2007 to 2017, fewer than 200 cases of infection with the bacteria were diagnosed each year in the US, when slightly more than this number was recorded.
Studies suggest that by 2030, nearly 400 Americans each year will be sickened by the bacteria — more than double the level from the turn of the century.
Dr. James Diaz, an environmentalist at Louisiana State University Health in New Orleans who has been involved in several studies of Vibrio vulnificus, also warned about the risk of infection.
He told DailyMail.com: “Any kind of wound, especially an open wound, can lead to a (harmful) infection with Vibrio or with another bacteria.
‘Often a small wound in someone who is (healthy) is not a problem, but we also see serious wounds in these people that can lead to an infection’.
This chart shows the reported Vibrio infections in the United States. This shows that Vibrio vulnificus – the big gray dotted line – has seen the number of cases gradually increase
Dr. Luis Ostrosky of UTHealth Houston (left) and Dr. James Diaz of LSU Health (right) both warned of the dangers of swimming in water contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus
The deadly infections are caused by the V. vulnificus bacteria, also known as a flesh-eating bacteria because skin infections can lead to necrotizing fasciitis, where the flesh around a wound dies.
He warned that people who had sustained deep wounds while swimming, such as accidentally stepping on a sea urchin or stingray, were at risk of infection.
Sea urchins bury vibrio-coated spines deep in a person’s foot, while stingrays can cut through flesh like a “stiletto knife” and open a dangerous wound, he said.
Also, people are at risk of stepping on shards of glass or nails underwater, which can also cause wounds that are at risk for a Vibrio infection.
Dr. Diaz said a previous patient of his died of a Vibrio infection from a crab bite.
“The patient had cirrhosis of the liver and needed a liver transplant,” he said. And he also lived on the Gulf Coast and loved to fish and go crabbing with the kids and grandkids.
“The transplant was a success and he was put on immunosuppressive drugs to make sure his body accepted the new organ.
“But then he went to scratch and a crab bit his toe. The toe got infected, so we took the toe off, but then the infection moved on and we amputated part of the foot, and then part of the leg.”
He ended with, “We couldn’t control the infection and the patient died.”
Scientists say people can also get a Vibrio infection from eating seafood contaminated with the bacteria, such as shellfish.
This is fatal in about 95 percent of cases, the CDC says, because the bacteria can survive stomach acid and cause infection in the gut.