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'Flesh-Eating Bacteria' FAQ

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WebMD Health News

By Kathleen Doheny

WebMD Health News

Aug. 1, 2014 -- Summer is prime season for a bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus -- also known as “flesh-eating” bacteria -- to thrive, especially in warm Gulf Coast waters. Swimmers and those who eat seafood should be careful to avoid infection from this potentially fatal bacteria.

Earlier this summer, Florida health officials issued a reminder that the bacteria thrives not just in Florida but in other coastal states surrounded by warm saltwater.

While infection with the bacteria is a rare cause of disease, taking simple precautions can minimize the risk and decrease the chances of the bacteria becoming ''flesh-eating." That's especially true when the bacteria is thriving -- from May through October .

WebMD turned to public health experts to shed more light on these bacteria and to get advice on how to stay healthy.

Where is Vibrio vulnificus found?

The bacteria thrive in warm saltwater. Most cases of infection happen in the Gulf Coast region, including Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, the CDC says.

"The bacteria thrive in warm water, so concentrations of the bacteria are higher during the summer months," says Carina Blackmore, PhD, Florida's acting state epidemiologist.

How do you get it?

Eating uncooked seafood can bring on the infection. Also, if a skin injury is exposed to the bacteria, the wound can become infected.

The bacteria can also infect the blood, especially if someone has chronic liver disease or other medical problems that compromise their immune system. This type of infection can become severe and even fatal. Bloodstream infections with V. vulnificus are lethal in half of those affected, the CDC says.

There is no evidence the bacteria is transmitted from person to person, the CDC says.

How common is it?

In the U.S., about 95 cases occur each year, according to the CDC, although only half of those are confirmed by culturing the blood, the stool, or a wound. Of those, about 85 patients need to be in the hospital; about 35 die.

In Florida, 11 cases have been reported in 2014, says Sheri Hutchinson, a spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Health, with two deaths as of July 25. In 2013, 41 cases were reported, with 11 deaths.

Who is most at risk, and how can people minimize the risk?

Those who eat raw seafood and those who have open wounds and go into warm saltwater risk infection are at risk.

"People with underlying health problems and people who are immune-compromised, especially those with chronic liver disease, are at higher risk," Blackmore says.

Don't go into the water if you have broken skin or open wounds.

Don't eat raw shellfish, especially oysters. Refrigerate leftover fish promptly.

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