Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Vibrio Expert Discusses Flesh-Eating Bacteria Found in Gulf of Mexico

Published: June 30, 2016

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Vibrio Expert Discusses Flesh-Eating Bacteria Found in Gulf of Mexico

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – An insect bite or a tiny cut the size of a pinprick could put a person at risk for the “flesh-eating” bacteria known as Vibrio vulnificus – if they choose to enter warm coastal beaches waters.  Once Vibrio enters the body, it settles into the fascia, a band of connective tissue between the skin and muscle. Symptoms of exposure which can happen within a few hours to four days, may include fever, chills, sweats, redness, swelling and painful blood-filled blisters (“bullae”) around the area where the bacteria entered the body.

Dr. Gregory Buck, Associate Professor of Biology and Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, says Vibrio vulnificus, which is about one micrometer in length, thrives in warm estuarine and marine waters. Optimum growth happens between 60 – 86 F degrees, but it can live in cooler and hotter temperatures. The environmental bacterium cannot survive in fresh water.

“Vibrio vulnificus occurs naturally along coastal waters from Texas to Florida, and all over the world,” said Buck. “It’s always there and you cannot get rid of it. It grows on the backs of mollusk shells, sea grasses and also on the skin of fish. It is also concentrated in the tissues of filter feeders such as oysters, clams and mussels.”

In addition to the organism entering the body through an open wound, persons eating raw shellfish may also contract a disease whose symptoms, which appear within hours to days, present as gastroenteritis. Oral ingestion of bacteria through raw seafood may also present with bullae. Both gastroenteritis and entry through wounds may lead to bacteria in the bloodstream (sepsis or “blood poisoning”) within seven hours to 10 days, and this condition has a worse outcome. Buck warns that anyone experiencing any symptoms seek medical attention right away.

“Vibrio does not go away on its own,” he said. “If you suspect you have Vibrio or are showing symptoms, go to the emergency room. Do not waste any time.”

Buck, whose research interests include the progression of how Vibrio vulnificus genes may lead to potentially-fatal wound infections and septicemia in humans and gastroenteritis, says that although anyone can get the diseases, a majority of individuals (77-87 percent) who contract Vibrio are males over the age of 50 who may have hemochromatosis (iron-rich blood), diabetes, cancer, liver or kidney problems and those who have a compromised immune system.

In early June, a 50-year-old man contracted Vibrio vulnificus bacteria after wading in beach waters in Galveston, Texas. He underwent an amputation of half of his right leg and continues to  fight for his life. In mid-June, an Austin man contracted Vibrio during his Father’s Day visit to a Port Aransas beach. He is currently being treated with heavy doses of antibiotics. 

Even though these recent cases have caused concern, Buck says Vibrio vulnificus is quite uncommon.

“Two to three people per million actually end up with Vibrio vulnificus,” he said.

As a precaution, Buck encourages anyone who has been in salt water to wash themselves with soap and water upon getting out of the water.