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What is ‘flesh-eating bacteria?’ And how can you protect yourself while at the beach?

‘Don’t go into the water’ warns vibrio victim’s daughter

Waveland, Miss. resident Ronald Winnert lost his leg to vibrio, a flesh eating bacteria he came into contact with while fishing. People can become infected by consuming raw or undercooked seafood or exposing a wound to seawater.
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Waveland, Miss. resident Ronald Winnert lost his leg to vibrio, a flesh eating bacteria he came into contact with while fishing. People can become infected by consuming raw or undercooked seafood or exposing a wound to seawater.

It sounds scary and it is, but the chances of contracting a flesh-eating bacteria are relatively low.

The death last week of a 77-year-old Ellenton woman whose family says contracted a flesh-eating bacteria in waters off Anna Maria Island, coupled with reports of a 12-year-old girl the family says got the bacteria while vacationing in the Florida Panhandle understandably has raised anxiety levels.

Flesh-eating bacteria is a commonly used term, but it is a member of the Group A Streptococcus, most often associated with such illnesses as strep throat and scarlet fever. While those illnesses are contagious, the Vibrio vulnificus, or flesh-eating bacteria, is not.

Scientists are unsure how one form of the Streptococcus can cause a common illness like strep throat and then potentially turn deadly in the form of Vibrio.

The infection spreads rapidly and symptoms include:

  • A red or swollen area of skin that spreads quickly.
  • Severe pain, including pain beyond the area of the skin that is red or swollen.
  • Fever.

Later symptoms include:

  • Ulcers, blisters, or black spots on the skin.
  • Changes in the color of skin.
  • Pus or oozing from the infected area.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Diarrhea or nausea.

The Florida Department of Health of Manatee County did not immediately respond for comment on Monday. However, according to the DOH of Sarasota County, officials do not test area waters for the flesh-eating bacteria because is it common during warm water months.

In other words, yes, it is out there, but that doesn’t meant you’ll contract the bacteria.

Those most at risk include people with:

  • Diabetes.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Cancer.
  • Anyone with a compromised immune system.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that if anyone suspects they have, rapid treatment can make all the difference.

According to the CDC, there are many infections that look similar in the early stages, which can make diagnosis difficult. It’s important to communicate to your doctor what you were doing at the time a possible infection was first noticed. If a doctor suspects flesh-eating bacteria, they aren’t likely to wait for test results before taking action.

Preventative steps for at-risk individuals including those with open wounds are:

  • Avoid hot tubs.
  • Avoid swimming pools.
  • Avoid all natural bodies of water.

The infection can lead to organ failure and death, or life-long complications involving loss of limb. Even with treatment, one-third of victims will die from the infection. The CDC notes, cases “occur randomly” and there are currently no vaccines to prevent infection ahead of time.

The CDC reports there are between 700 to 1,200 cases a year, but, “This is likely an underestimate.”

Bacteria can enter the skin through:

  • Cuts and scrapes.
  • Burns.
  • Insect bites.
  • Puncture wounds (including those due to intravenous or IV drug use).
  • Surgical wounds.
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