Infections with flesh-eating bacteria spike in Florida after Hurricane Ian

Health officials in Florida have reported an "abnormal increase" in cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections and deaths related to them as a result of contact with floodwaters.

Infections with flesh-eating bacteria spike in Florida after Hurricane Ian
In Florida, infections caused by flesh-eating bacteria have increased since Hurricane Ian made landfall. Photo by Wade Austin Ellis / Unsplash

In the areas devastated by Hurricane Ian, flesh-eating bacteria infections and deaths have spiked in Florida. Vibrio vulnificus, a water-borne microbe, is responsible for 11 deaths and 64 infections so far this year, with officials estimating that nearly half of these infections are related to Hurricane Ian.

Since the category four hurricane made landfall there on September 28th, Lee County, one of the areas hardest hit by the storm, has recorded 27 illnesses and at least four deaths linked to the bacteria.

"The Florida Department of Health in Lee County is observing an abnormal increase in cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections as a result of exposure to floodwaters and standing water as a result of Hurricane Ian," the county health department reported Monday.

Three additional cases were confirmed in Collier County, south of Lee County, and were attributed to the storm. Infections caused by Vibrio vulnificus can result from the bacteria entering the body through open wounds or from eating contaminated raw shellfish, such as oysters.

In a statement, the Florida department of health advised residents to "always be aware of the potential risks associated with exposing open wounds, cuts, or skin scratches to warm, brackish, or salt water."

"Sewage spills, such as those caused by Hurricane Ian, may increase bacteria levels," continued the statement. Individuals should take precautions against infection and illness caused by Vibrio vulnificus as the post-storm situation evolves.

The health department cautioned that individuals with compromised immune systems are at increased risk for developing severe infection-related complications. In Florida, Vibrio vulnificus poses a constant, low-level threat. The state recorded 34 cases and ten deaths last year. There were 36 cases and seven deaths in 2020.

In 2017, following widespread flooding caused by Hurricane Irma, the department recorded 50 cases and 11 fatalities, the previous high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States, roughly one in five Vibrio vulnificus patients die, in some cases within a day or two of becoming ill.

Antibiotic treatment can increase the likelihood of survival, but the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and cause sepsis. Often, amputations are performed to prevent the disease's spread.