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As the weather warms and millions of Texans plan trips to the beach, the Galveston County Health District (GCHD) offers information about the often misunderstood Vibrio vulnificus “flesh-eating” bacteria.
About Vibrio vulnificus
Vibrio vulnificus is not associated with pollution and is not unique to the Gulf of Mexico, Texas or Galveston. The bacteria is naturally present in salt and brackish water around the world. Infections from Vibrio vulnificus are rare and typically affect people with pre-existing health conditions who had open cuts or sores when they came into contact with the bacteria.
More than 10 million people visited Texas beaches in 2015 and less than 0.00035% acquired Vibrio vulnificus. Most of those who get infections recover without long-term health consequences. By comparison, 100 times as many people were killed in vehicle crashes in Texas during the same year.
“The average person is far more likely to be killed in a car accident driving to a beach than they are to get an infection from the water,” said Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County Local Health Authority. “As with any activity that involves Mother Nature, there is always going to be risk and groups of people who are more vulnerable than others.”
People with diabetes, liver disease, cancer or other immune suppressing conditions who swim in natural bodies of water with open cuts or sores are at an increased risk for Vibrio vulnificus. Healthy people are extraordinarily less likely to get an infection than the ill.
“Immune compromising conditions put people at a far greater risk of infection from any source,” Dr. Keiser continued. “So, it’s not surprising that cases of Vibrio vulnificus we’ve investigated at the Galveston County Health District involved such conditions.”
Swimming in natural bodies of water anywhere comes with risk. To reduce it, beachgoers with open cuts or sores, especially those with pre-existing conditions, should avoid swimming or check with their doctor first.
People who suffer cuts while in natural bodies of water anywhere should immediately leave the water, thoroughly clean the wound and do not return until the wound heals. It’s important to keep an eye on the area for infection or swelling. If either occur, medical attention should be obtained immediately. Vibrio vulnificus infections are treatable, especially if caught early. Wearing water shoes while swimming and gloves or waders while fishing can help prevent cuts.
Texas Beach Watch
Texas Beach Watch advisories are NOT for “flesh-eating bacteria,” rather Enterococcus, a bacteria commonly found in rainwater runoff. Advisories typically last 48 hours and can be avoided by moving a few blocks to a beach that’s not under advisory. Although infection from Enterococcus is also rare and often less serious than Vibrio vulnificus, the same risk factors apply and same precautions should be followed. Visit www.gchd.org/beachwatch for more information about Texas Beach Watch.
Research the Facts
GCHD encourages people to speak with their doctor or research facts online from sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Texas Department of State Health Services or www.gchd.org/beachwater.
“Vibrio vulnificus is one of many threats that deserve attention but not overreaction,” Dr. Keiser continued.
Click here for a PDF version of this infographic.
Scott Packard is director of communications for the Galveston County Health District, includingCoastal Health & Wellness, the Animal Resource Center and Galveston Area Ambulance Authority.