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Be aware of devastating bacteria before getting in water this summer

By JR Ortega
June 7, 2012 at 1:07 a.m.
Updated June 10, 2012 at 1:10 a.m.


SYMPTOMS

• Vomiting

• Diarrhea

• Abdominal pain

• Fever

• Chills

• Decreased blood pressure

• Blistering skin lesions

TREATMENT

A culture of the wound is usually recommended to determine whether it is a vibrio vulnificus. Doctors typically prescribe doxycycline, an antibiotic, to try to stop the infection. Severe cases may require amputation, or sometimes the bacteria can be fatal.

Know thy enemy

Vibrio vulnificus is a flesh-eating bacteria that belongs to the same family as the bacterium that causes cholera. It lives in warm seawater and can get into your skin through open wounds. It is especially prevalent in the summer.

TWO OF A KIND

Vibrio parahemolyticus can also cause flesh-eating, but more commonly affects people internally when ingested. It can cause watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills. The symptoms likely show after 24 hours of ingestion.

Home grown

Between 1988-2006 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received 900 reports of vibrio vulnificus infections on the Gulf Coast, which is where most cases happen.

HOW TO AVOID VIBRIO

• Avoid raw oysters

• Cook any shellfish thoroughly

• Be sure not to cross-contaminate cooked seafood with other raw foods

• Eat shellfish immediately after cooking

• Avoid exposure of open wounds and broken skin to warm salt or brackish water

• Wear protective clothing when in the water or cleaning shellfish

SOURCES

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cdc.gov

It happened in the blink of an eye.

Jay Lack, now 65, had spent the summer of 2007 basking in the sun, enjoying a day of bay fishing in Port O'Connor.

Hours later, the Victoria resident was in the hospital, his leg stricken with vibrio vulnificus, a flesh-eating bacteria that reddens and swells a wound infected by warm bay waters.

"I didn't feel good," Lack said. "Then I felt horrible."

Dr. John McNeill, a Victoria physician, has seen several cases of vibrio, including Lack.

The bacteria is present in the water year-round, but is more prevalent in the summer and during times where little rain has stirred up the water.

"It's a devastating disease," he said. "The bacteria can go through your skin faster than any other bacteria."

Lack was given doxycycline, an antibiotic, to try to rid the infection. Hours later, he was back and most of his leg was red and he had a fever of 103, McNeill said.

Lack received a skin graft on his ankle.

Today, while Lack continues his love for bay fishing, he is, of course, more cautious.

"My leg will still swell up if I'm on my feet all day long," he said.

Tom Schmidt had a similar experience, but during the fall.

Schmidt, now 64, was fishing in the bay at Rockport in 2003 when he contracted vibrio. He had a bruise on his ankle and after that contact, it began aching.

It was a Saturday in October and by the next day, his ankle had swollen and he had flu-like symptoms.

Schmidt spent a week in the hospital. He said anyone who sees any swelling or redness should go to the emergency room immediately.

"It's easily treatable if caught early," he said. "The doctors had permission to amputate my leg."

Luckily for Schmidt, his leg was saved and he, too, continues bay fishing with some added precaution.

He won't go fishing if he has a cut, even though he may want to. Even then, he wears waders just to be extra cautious.

"I don't take any chances," he said. "I think a lot of people aren't aware."

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