A naturally occurring bacteria in warm saltwater and brackish water environments is causing a scare to some beach goers across Southwest Florida.
Some recent media coverage has provided inaccurate details on what is scientifically known as "Vibrio vulnificus," according to officials with the Lee County Department of Health. The reports intensified a fear factor to anyone who may be leery about going swimming within the Gulf waters of Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Captiva or other beachfronts.
"Vibro is not a flesh-eating bacteria. It is a term that was coined by the media and inaccurately disseminated and spread throughout the world," said Diane Holm, health community coordinator for Lee County Department of Health. "Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria that creates an infection of the blood that is totally treatable by antibiotics."
If bacteria levels in Gulf waters were deemed too high, the local health department would notify beach goers at Lynn Hall Park by flipping a part of this sign over to indicate no swimming.
Holm is unaware of any problem with vibrio vulnificus in local waters. She said she has received many calls from people who are concerned after hearing or reading the reports, spread nationally in "flesh-eating bacteria" stories.
However, that phrase is not a medical term.
"Vibrio vulnificus is bacteria that is no different than Staph(ylococcus) or Strep(ococcus)," said Holm. Holm compared "Vibrio" to "stronger than a cockroach" due to its survival mechanism throughout time.
"It consistently evolves and finds a way to live. It's in our environment, in our water and is not any more prevalent than it used to be," she said.
Since 2007, the Centers for Disease Control have requested that DOH agencies track numbers of patients infected by that particular bacteria. Those stats increase the hype.
"We know that staph and strep infections are far, far more numerous, but they are not tracked," Holm said.
According to website www.newsroom.doh.state.fl.us (click 'Information on Vibrio vulnificus'), there have been 13 cases and three deaths reported in Florida for 2014 to date. The chart is updated every Friday.
By comparison the site shows there were 41 cases and 13 deaths in 2013. While there are less than five more months remaining in this calendar year, last year's numbers reveal more than three times the cases and more than four times the deaths.
Newsroom tweets have offered opinions. One stated, "Lee county doesn't put out warnings for ("Vibrio") due to the fact it probably hurts the economy."
"That is totally untrue," said Holm. "We do put out warnings when there is something to warn about."
DOH reports say that bacteria can enter the human body from contact with open wounds or sores, or by eating raw shellfish, like raw oysters. Persons with low or compromised immune systems are more susceptible to infection.
Holm said case studies indicate "Vibrio vulnificus" can survive in water that is as cold as 58 degrees.
"It does appear that the quantity of bacterium increases with the temperature of the water," she pointed out.
If anyone gets a cut while in the water, Holm advised to cleanse the wound properly with soap and water, then keep it covered and dry until it heals. If needed, anti-bacterial lotion or cream can be applied.
"We don't want to totally downplay this, because it is a bacteria that does cause a serious infection if people choose not to treat it," she said. "There is treatment for it, and people should get (wounds, cuts) treated if there are signs of infection."
"It's disappointing that media hype about a naturally occuring bacteria that hasn't changed in our environment is causing people to vacation elsewhere," said Holm.