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Florida stormwater excesses spread deadly flesh-eating bacteria

Dec 12, 2015

, FLORIDA TODAY2:08 p.m. EST December 12, 2015

Original Source:

[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)]


FORT PIERCE — Behind doors marked “biohazard,” Gabby Barbarite holds up a petri dish blotched with blue-colored stains. The splotches are an emerging pathogen that causes 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths annually in the United States.

The flesh-destroying bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, has infected at least 42 people this year in Florida, killing 13 — the state's highest death-toll and number of cases from the pathogen in the past eight years.

Florida’s averaged 31 Vibrio cases since 2008 and about 10 deaths.

Here at from the Marine Biomedical & Biotechnology Research lab at FAU-Harbor Branch, Barbarite explores the links between the dangerous bacteria and stormwater runoff.

Florida has the highest incidence of Vibrio infections in the country, with 20 percent of the state’s cases within the lagoon region.

Half of Vibrio vulnificus infections are deadly, and mostly that’s when people eat a contaminated oyster or other seafood.

The bacteria is not a result of pollution, Barbarite 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.

This year’s Vibrio deaths included two men in Brevard: a 57-year-old Melbourne man in May who had a suppressed immune system, and another Brevard man who died after having onset of symptoms in July from an unknown exposure to the bacteria.

[Gabby Barbarite, a Ph,D candidate in Integrated Biology, talks about her study of vibrio vulnificus at FAU-Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. (Photo: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY)]

In late October 2014, a 73-year-old Palm Bay man with diabetes and heart disease died of Vibrio after swimming in the Indian River Lagoon. But health officials weren't able to determine whether he had contracted the bacteria from food or through a wound.

Florida health officials warn people to avoid exposing open wounds to warm, salty outdoor waters, and for those with health issues to avoid eating raw shellfish.

For her dissertation, Barbarite is researching how fresh water releases impact Vibrio, to figure out which areas are hotspots for the pathogen and warn the public about the risks.

“We are really needing to target fishermen,” Barbarite said of Vibrio public awareness campaigns.

Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JWayEnviro

Harbor Branch started up a site to teach the public about the risk of Vibrio infections.Read more here.

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