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Stormwater Runoff Leads to Spread of Deadly Pathogen in Florida

Dec 20, 2015

Published By: Eric Chaney

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[A closeup look at the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. (Wikimedia)]

From November 1, 2014 through October 31, 2015, the South Florida Water Management District released approximately 428.32 billion gallons of water south from Lake Okeechobe.

The releases are meant to provide flood protection after heavy rains as well as supply water to communities in South Florida, but they may also be furthering the spread of a deadly bacteria, scientist Gabby Barbarite told Florida Today. Barbarite, a researcher at the Marine Biomedical & Biotechnology Research lab at FAU-Harbor Branch, says that poor stormwater management can spread the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria far beyond where it’s normally found.

The bacteria, in the same family as those that cause cholera, accounts for an estimated 80,000 illnesses, 500 hospitalizations and 100 deaths each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the Florida Department of Health, at least 14 people have died this year of vibriosis. While some are calling Vibri vulnificus a "flesh-eating" bacteria, experts warn that's not necessarily true. 

While tissue breakdown can occur during advanced stages of vibriosis, Barbarite says in an FAU release, that using the term "flesh-eating bacteria" is "false and misleading" and causes "unnecessary fear and panic." V. vulnificus does not decompose healthy-intact skin, even if contacted for long periods of time. Infections are acquired when pathogenic strains encounter broken skin and open wounds, or are consumed in large quantities.

Infections usually stem from exposure to seawater or consumption of raw or undercooked seafood, and can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, the CDC reports. V. vulnificus can cause an infection of the skin when open wounds are exposed to warm seawater.

"The way to protect yourself from skin infections from vibrio is by performing good wound care and you do that by covering the wounds with dry clean bandages until they’re healed," Dr. Carina Blackmore, Deputy State Epidemiologist, said in a video released by the health department.

For her dissertation, Barbarite is researching how fresh water releases impact Vibrio, says Florida Today, 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.

Anglers should be aware of the hazards and use caution when handling fish and bait. Proper footwear should be used when wading to prevent injury. Open wounds should never be exposed to the environment and all seafood should be cooked thoroughly, Barbarite says in an FAU release.

Fear of V. vulnificus should not keep you out of our local waters, Barbarite says. It’s always been here, only a small percent of the population is considered “at risk” and infections are easy to prevent if you follow common sense safety precautions.

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