Deadly Bacteria Cases Hit 12-Year High In Florida Following Hurricane Ian



Hurricane Ian’s deluge of floodwater in Florida has fueled a 12-year high in infections from a deadly bacteria that spreads in warm, brackish water, according to state data.

Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria sometimes called “flesh-eating” for its life-threatening wound infections, caused 11 deaths among this year’s 65 reported cases, the state Health Department reported. Nearly half of those cases were in coastal areas hit hardest by last month’s storm.

The number of infections caused by the bacteria, which can spread through open wounds and scrapes that come in contact with bacteria-ridden floodwaters, are nearly double those seen in 2021 or 2020, and surpass the 12-year peak of 50 cases logged in 2017 after Hurricane Irma.

Most of this year’s infections are in Lee County, where the Category 4 storm made landfall. There, 26 cases have been confirmed within 18 days ― all linked to wounds exposed to floodwaters. Three additional cases confirmed this year were unrelated to the storm, said Tammy Soliz, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health in Lee County.

A resident of a mobile home park near Fort Myers Beach walks through floodwaters from Hurricane Ian on Sept. 29. Health officials in Florida are advising people to wear protective boots if entering the water, which can carry high levels of bacteria.

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Signs of infection include pain, redness, swelling, warmth, discoloration, and discharge. Blistering skin lesions can result if the bacteria reach the bloodstream, along with fever and dangerously low blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The surge of infections, described as “abnormal” by the state Health Department, is not entirely unexpected. Cases of Vibrio vulnificus also have spiked following previous major storms.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there were 22 new cases of Vibrio illness and five deaths within a two-week period in states hit by the storm, according to the CDC. Of these cases, 18 were linked to wounds getting infected.

A 2013 study found that more than a quarter of skin and soft tissue infections after extreme water-related events were due to Vibrio vulnificus.

A man tries to ride a bike in a road flooded by Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers. The bacteria grows faster in warmer months and can be amplified by sewage spills, according to health officials.
A man tries to ride a bike in a road flooded by Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers. The bacteria grows faster in warmer months and can be amplified by sewage spills, according to health officials.

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“These bacteria typically grow faster during warmer months,” the Health Department said in a recent Lee County public alert. “Sewage spills in coastal waters, like those caused by Hurricane Ian, may increase bacteria levels.”

In Naples, about 50 miles south of Lee County, a Michigan man who traveled there to help a friend recover from the storm died after his leg became infected following a scratch, Fox 17 News reported.

The man’s fiancee said he thought antibacterial ointment would be enough. His leg became painfully swollen, however, and he died at a hospital.

Health officials recommend that anyone working in hurricane-damaged areas, especially in areas with standing water, wear boots and other protective clothing to prevent wounds and broken skin from exposure to contaminated water. This advice is especially pertinent to those with liver disease or other immunocompromising conditions.

The majority of Vibrio infections are caused by eating raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish, according to the CDC.
The majority of Vibrio infections are caused by eating raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish, according to the CDC.

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“Anyone can get a Vibrio wound infection. But some people are more likely to get an infection and have severe complications,” the CDC advises.

Treatment can include antibiotics and sometimes amputation to remove dead or infected tissue.

Researchers have warned that the prevalence of such pathogens is expected to increase due to the rising frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme water-related weather events, such as excessive rainfall, storm surges and floods.

It’s not just cuts and scrapes that can lead to infection. The majority of Vibrio infections are caused by eating raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish, according to the CDC.

“Serious infection is rare, but the risk is still there,” University of West Florida professor Dr. Robert “Wes” Farr, who specializes in infectious disease, recently told the Pensacola News Journal following the death of a local man after eating a raw oyster.

So far this year, 26 people have become infected with the bacteria after eating oysters in Florida. Of those, six died, according to the state Health Department.