Florida officials have reported a significant uptick in cases of Vibrio vulnificus — commonly referred to as a “flesh-eating” bacterial infection — in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.
At least 65 people have been infected across the state this year, nearly double last year’s total, and the highest number of cases on record since at least 2008, according to the Florida Department of Health’s (DOH) website.
The disease can be severe and potentially lead to death, especially in people with pre-existing conditions like liver disease or weakened immune systems.
While infections are generally rare, Vibrio vulnificus is often spread by eating raw or undercooked seafood, as well as contact with infected waters, according to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC).
The bacteria can spread through an open wound, cut or scratch if people come in contact with contaminated seawater or brackish water — which is water with more salt than freshwater but not as much as seawater, according to a release issued earlier this month from Lee County health officials.
After a hurricane, storm surges and lingering floods can create pools of water with conditions that foster bacterial growth.
“Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium that usually lives in warm, brackish sea water. These bacteria typically grow faster during warmer months,” the warning reads. “Sewage spills in coastal waters, like those caused by Hurricane Ian, may increase bacteria levels.”
Common symptoms include fever and diarrhoea, as well as redness and swelling around a wound, the CDC says. Some infections can also cause necrotizing fasciitis, which is when the tissue around a wound starts to die — earning it the moniker “flesh-eating bacteria.”
Hurricane Ian’s impact on cases in Florida has been concentrated in some of the southwestern counties that got a direct hit from the storm.
A spokesperson for the Florida DOH told The Independent on Tuesday that Lee County alone has documented 26 cases of Vibrio vulnificus since Hurricane Ian’s landfall, and Collier County has seen two cases since landfall. Of those cases, seven people have died, they added.
In total, Lee and Collier counties combined have seen 32 cases this year, according to data at the Florida DOH website, updated last Friday.
About 20 per cent of people who become infected with Vibrio vulnificus will end up dying, the CDC says – but even people who survive may have to deal with a serious and debilitating illness.
Hurricane Ian isn’t the first US storm associated with Vibrio vulnificus infections, either. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, officials confirmed 14 cases and three deaths.
To prevent infection, the CDC recommends staying out of salty or brackish water if you have any wounds or cuts and cleaning injuries properly. Officials advise people to stay out of floodwaters after a hurricane to prevent infection from bacteria like Vibrio vulnificus, as well as to avoid contact with dangerous chemicals or objects that may have been picked up by the floods.
Anyone who develops any sign of infection or illness in the aftermath of a storm is encouraged to seek medical care immediately.
Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida as a near-Category 5 storm, leaving many communities devastated and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. In Florida, the death count from the storm has reached at least 120 people, many in southwest counties like Lee and Charlotte which saw the full brunt of the storm.
These kinds of dangerous storms may become more frequent in the coming decades as the climate crisis grows. Warmer waters can supercharge a storm before it hits landfall, and a UN climate science panel has found that the percentage of storms reaching dangerous Category 3 status or higher has been increasing over the past 40 years.