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Take precautions to prevent deadly bacteria infection

Health officials urge public to avoid exposure

Gabby Barbarite, a Ph,D candidate in Integrated Biology at FAU-Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, holds a sample of vibrio vulnificus gathered from the Indian River near Taylor Creek in Fort Pierce.  (Photo: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY)
Gabby Barbarite, a Ph,D candidate in Integrated Biology at FAU-Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, holds a sample of vibrio vulnificus gathered from the Indian River near Taylor Creek in Fort Pierce. (Photo: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY)

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Warm waters and one case of a potentially deadly flesh destroying bacteria in Brevard County have prompted Florida health officials to urge the public to avoid exposure to the rare bacterial infection.

News 6 partner Florida Today reported that Brevard County's warning came two days after state health officials in Volusia County similarly urged residents and tourists to take precautions to prevent exposure to Vibrio vulnificus, a potentially deadly saltwater bacteria that has killed four people so far this year in Florida.

The bacteria occurs most often in warm, stagnant inshore waters near freshwater discharge areas, rather than in the ocean, where it can't tolerate high salt levels, according to scientists at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce​.

Indian River Lagoon water temperature topped 90 degrees Fahrenheit this week, according to several state monitors between Titusville and Vero Beach.

Broward, Citrus, Palm Beach and Santa Rosa counties each have had a death attributed to the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria this year.

The Brevard County victim who contracted Vibrio vulnificus survived. State health officials would not provide the gender, age or city of residence of the victim, or when, where and how they got the infection.

There have been 13 cases in Florida so far this year, according to the state health department, including one non-fatal case in Volusia County. Florida had 45 cases and 14 deaths from the bacteria last year.

“I encourage residents to practice good wound care, as it is the best way to prevent a bacterial skin infection,” Department of Health-Brevard Interim Administrator Miranda Hawker said in a release. “Keep open wounds covered with clean, dry bandages until healed, and don't delay first aid of even minor, noninfected wounds, like blisters, scrapes or any break in the skin.”

The bacteria can thrive when salt levels dip below 2.5 percent, according to scientists at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. This week, state water monitors in the Indian River Lagoon near Melbourne and Vero Beach showed salt levels had dropped to about 1.7 percent and 2 percent, respectively.

About half of Vibrio vulnificus infections are deadly when people with preexisting health conditions eat a contaminated oyster or other seafood. When the bacteria infect a skin wound, odds of survival are much higher.

Vibrio infections tend to happen between May and October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Warm water and moderate salt levels can increase the number of V. vulnificus organisms in shellfish.

The bacteria is not a result of pollution, biologists said, but poor stormwater management makes it worse. Heavy rains, large water releases — like those from Lake Okeechobbee and those that hit the lagoon region in 2013 and 2014 — can push the pathogen beyond where it’s normally found.

And that’s a concern, given that the more deadly route of the pathogen to humans is via eating shellfish and other seafood.

In May, the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, with the help of the nonprofit Public Citizen, another consumer advocacy group.

They want the Food and Drug Administration to require low-heat pasteurization or other techniques for killing the bacteria that they said don't affect the taste.​

Without a safety standard, an estimated 30 people will become seriously ill, and 15 of them will die, the groups estimated, because of eating raw shellfish that contain the bacteria.

Learn about Vibrio vulnificus

Florida Department of Health Vibrio site: www.floridahealth.gov/diseases-and-conditions/vibrio-infections/vibrio-vulnificus/index.html

Tips for preventing Vibrio vulnificus infections

•Do not eat raw oysters or other raw shellfish.

•Cook shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels) thoroughly.

•For shellfish in the shell, either a) boil until the shells open and continue boiling for 5 more minutes, or b) steam until the shells open and then continue cooking for 9 more minutes. Do not eat those shellfish that do not open during cooking. Boil shucked oysters at least 3 minutes, or fry them in oil at least 10 minutes at 375°F.

•Avoid cross-contamination of cooked seafood and other foods with raw seafood and juices from raw seafood.

•Eat shellfish promptly after cooking and refrigerate leftovers.

•Avoid exposure of open wounds or broken skin to warm salt or brackish water, or to raw shellfish harvested from such waters.

•Wear protective clothing (e.g., gloves) when handling raw shellfish.

Source: Brevard County Health Department