Flesh-eating bacteria is not just in the water. It can also ‘colonize’ in the sand

The Florida Department of Health reports it has not been contacted by anyone directly associated with the recent cases of flesh-eating bacteria that have been reported in the media. The lack of contact makes it difficult for DOH to investigate the circumstances and locations involved.

“At present, we do not have firsthand knowledge related to any case of necrotizing fasiitis reported in the media,” states a news release issued Monday.

However, given the growing concern, the health department launched a new campaign to inform beach-goers on how to remain safe. The campaign — Swim it, Shore it, Dodge it — offers guidance on when to avoid getting in the water.

But it’s not just the water where there is potential danger, according to Tom Iovino, communications director for the DOH in Manatee County.

“You can also contract it from the sand,” Iovino said. “Certain bacteria colonize in the sand.”

The most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis is Group A Strep.

“People do not ‘catch’ necrotizing fasciitis, it is a complication or symptom of bacterial infection that has not been properly and promptly treated,” the health department said.

Vibrio vulnificus, which is often associated as the flesh-eating bacteria, “is a naturally occurring bacteria found in warm salty waters such as the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding bays,” the state DOH reports. “Concentrations of this bacteria are higher when the water is warmer.”

Iovino said the reason the DOH doesn’t specifically test for it is because they know it’s already present, especially during warm-weather months.

The recent death of Ellenton resident Lynn Fleming, whose family says contracted the flesh-eating bacteria while visiting Coquina Beach, is the first such case in Manatee County, according to Iovino.

“As far as we know, it is the first case we’ve seen in Manatee County,” he said. “We have seen about 38 to 40 cases statewide this year.”

Though health officials say those contracting the flesh-eating symptoms are rare, the bacteria that causes it is “very common,” Iovino said.

“We test for a variety of bacteria that are associated with things like a sewer line break and that’s when DOH will issue a no swim advisory, and of course, any health concerns with red tide or blue-green algae.

“But we don’t test for bacteria known to cause infections because they are very common,” Iovino said.

That’s why it’s important to take the proper precautions when going to the beach, health officials note.

The state DOH reiterated that, “Rapid diagnosis is the key to effective treatment and recovery.”

The DOH also reiterates the advice given by the Centers for Disease Control, which include:

  • Avoid walking, sitting or swimming in the Gulf with open wounds.
  • Properly clean and treat wounds after accidental exposure to Gulf and surrounding waters.
  • Seek medical treatment immediately if you develop any signs of infection.
  • Communicate to your doctor that you exposed an open wound to area waters, pools or hot tubs.

Iovino said to be cautious with the term “open wound.”

The Ellenton woman who died had a small cut less than an inch long. Iovino said he knows of another case where the man had cut himself shaving that morning. The bacteria is harmless until it has an opening into the body’s system and that could be as small as a minor scrape or a puncture wound left by a blood donation.

The flesh-eating symptom tends to be found in those with an illness that compromises the immune system, but everyone should properly care and seal any cuts on the body before going to the beach and monitor closely any breaks to the skin following a beach outing.

Health officials also ask friends and family of those who contract the infection to report to the county or state DOH as to where the infection may have been contracted.

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Breaking News/Real Time Reporter Mark Young began his career in 1996 and has been with the Bradenton Herald since 2014. He has won more than a dozen awards over the years, including the coveted Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Florida Press Club and for beat reporting from the Society for Professional Journalists to name a few. His reporting experience is as diverse as the communities he covers.
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