FORT PIERCE, Fla. - A bacteria that causes about 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths nationwide each year has been found in the Indian River Lagoon by scientists at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
Peter McCarthy, a research professor at Harbor Branch, and Gabby Barbarite, an FAU doctoral student, said the discovery shouldn’t keep people from getting in and on the lagoon water; but they advised fisherman, the elderly and people with immune system problems to exercise caution.
“The last thing we want to do is cause people to freak out because there’s a flesh-eating bacteria in the lagoon,” Barbarite said. “I’m a kayaker, and I go out in the lagoon all the time.”
McCarthy and Barbarite suggest:
People with open cuts should not be in the lagoon, and anyone who gets cut in the water should get out and clean the wound immediately.
Older people and those with immune system deficiencies, including diabetics, those with chronic liver disease and alcoholics, “don’t have to stay out of the water but should be aware they’re in a high-risk group,” Barbarite said.
Fishermen should immediately treat wounds caused by fin stabs or hooks because the bacteria has been found on fish scales.
Eating fish caught in the lagoon is OK, Barbarite said, “as long as you cook it first.”
She said about half of the 200 lagoon fish she sampled tested positive for the bacteria, known as Vibrio vulnificus.
Barbarite, who is studying Vibrio as her doctoral thesis, said the bacteria “probably has always been in the lagoon. It’s been infecting people, but not at an alarming rate.”
According to an Oct. 4 Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers report, the last Treasure Coast death from the bacteria was in St. Lucie County in 2012. The only reported illness that year also was in St. Lucie County, one of 27 cases statewide that year, including nine deaths, state reports show. Two of the 27 were linked to the Indian River Lagoon near Melbourne in Brevard County.
Barbarite said local doctors may not know to test for Vibrio bacteria infections, “and that’s part of the reason we want to get the word out about it.”
Most infections in Florida have occurred on the Gulf Coast and Panhandle and involved people eating raw oysters, Barbarite said.
“It doesn’t look like people are consuming oysters from the lagoon,” she added.
Barbarite plans to study the bacteria at six Treasure Coast sites along the lagoon: the St. Sebastian River Preserve near Sebastian, Riverside Park in Vero Beach, the Harbor Branch campus north of Fort Pierce, Harbour Pointe Park in Fort Pierce, the Fort Pierce Inlet and Sandsprit Park near Stuart.
“This is a part of a larger study which is looking at the health impacts of bacteria both in terms of how the bacteria impact human health and how we might impact the health of the Lagoon through pollution,” McCarthy said.
Is a bacterium that lives in brackish water, such as the Indian River Lagoon, particularly in warmer waters.
Can cause disease with potentially fatal complications by eating contaminated raw seafood or exposing an open wound to contaminated water.
Can cause skin infections when open wounds are exposed to warm, infested brackish water; these infections may lead to skin breakdown and ulcers.
Can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain if ingested by otherwise healthy people
Can infect the bloodstream of people with immune system deficiencies who have contact orally or through and open wound, causing a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions; bloodstream infections are fatal about 50 percent of the time.
Symptoms should be treated immediately because antibiotics improve healing
For information, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at cdc.gov/vibrio/.
Reported by: Tyler Treadway, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers