‘Flesh-eating’ bacteria: Florida’s beaches are safe, say officials

16 Jun

Florida’s health officials say the state’s beaches and waters are safe and wish to encourage families

and tourists to visit them. The announcement follows recent media reports about the risks of infection by so-called flesh-eating bacteria, which the authorities point out are minimal for those who take


vibrio bacteria
Infection by V. vulnificus can be serious and sometimes deadly.
Image credit: Florida Department of Health

The statement says that “Florida’s beaches and water are safe to enjoy responsibly – risk of infection is

minimal if you take proper precautions.” It points out that infections by the sea-water bacterium Vibrio

vulnificus are rare and:

“You are not at risk of V. vulnificus infection from swimming in Florida’s coastal waters – as

long as you are normally healthy and do not have open cuts or wounds.”

Intended to allay public fears about visiting Florida’s beaches, the statement comes in the wake of stories

that it says contain “inaccuracies” about the safety of Florida’s beach water in relation to cases of infection

by the bacterium.

V. vulnificus is in the same family of bacteria as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in

warm, brackish seawater, and while infections are rare, they can cause serious illness or death.

People can become infected with V. vulnificus by eating raw or under-cooked seafood – particularly

oysters. Individuals with open wounds can also be exposed to the bacterium through direct contact with


Need to educate public about the risks and how to protect against infection

The recent media coverage about V. vulnificus – also referred to as “flesh-eating” bacteria because

it can cause skin breakdown if it enters through an open wound – began following an annual release by Florida’s health department to remind people about ways to protect themselves

from the naturally occurring bacterium.

Every summer, as the weather warms up and more people visit the beach, the Florida department of health sees

a rise in reported V. vulnificus infections, so in an effort to educate the public about the risks and

how to minimize them, it puts out a statement, with a link to educational materials.

So far this year (2105) in Florida, there have been eight reported cases of infection by V. vulnificus,

and two deaths. In the whole of last year (2014), there were 32 reported cases and seven deaths.

Between 2008 and 2013, cases per year in Florida ranged between 16 (2008) and 41 (2013), and deaths between six

(2008) and 13 (2011).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while cases of V. vulnificus

are rare, they are also under-reported.

Ingestion of the bacterium can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

V. vulnificus can also enter open wounds, and when it does, it can lead to skin breakdown and


Healthy individuals typically only experience a mild reaction, but illness can be serious in people with

weakened immune systems, particularly if they have chronic liver disease.

The bacterium can enter the bloodstream and cause life-threatening illness with symptoms like blistering skin

lesions, fever, chills and decreased blood pressure (septic shock).

Tips on preventing V. vulnificus infections

The Florida Health Department has the following advice about preventing infection by V.


  • Do not eat raw shellfish – particularly oysters
  • Cook all shellfish thoroughly (oysters, clams, mussels)
  • For shellfish in the shell: either boil until the shells open and then boil for another 5 minutes, or steam

    until the shells open and then cook for another 9 minutes

  • Do not eat shellfish that do not open during cooking
  • For shucked oysters: boil at least 3 minutes, or fry in oil at 375 degrees for at least 10 minutes
  • Don’t let raw seafood – or juices from it – come into contact with cooked food
  • Eat shellfish promptly after cooking and refrigerate any leftovers
  • Wear protective clothing – including gloves – when handling raw shellfish
  • Don’t enter brackish or warm seawater – or come into contact with seafood harvested from such – if you have

    an open wound or broken skin

In the following video, Dr. Carina Blackmore, Florida’s Deputy State Epidemiologist, answers some common

questions about V. vulnificus and how to take precautions against infection.

Although V. vulnificus can lead to illness, in a curious twist sometimes seen in medicine, the

pathogen may also have a healing function – a study recently reported by MNT shows how a toxin secreted by V. vulnificus may inhibit cancer cell growth.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD