Local health officials are advising people to take precautions when swimming or wading in water after an Eastern Virginia resident died from bacteria that can erode flesh.
The resident was one of 23 people who have had cases of "Vibrio" bacteria infections, called vibriosis, reported to Virginia health officials since April of this year, and the only one who has died.
Nancy Lemis, epidemiologist for the Hampton Health Department, said health officials cannot release the identity, city or place where the person was exposed, but only that he or she lived in the Eastern Region, which includes Hampton Roads.
Health officials cannot release when the person died, but Lemis did say the majority of the vibriosis cases occur in the warmest part of the summer, when bacteria levels increase.
Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria found in brackish or warm salt waters that can cause serious infections. There are two types: one is contracted in waterborne cases, usually when people have a cut or wound while in the water or suffer one walking along beaches or jetties; the other occurs after eating raw or undercooked seafood, such as oysters and clams.
Lemis said she could not say with which was the case with the person who died.
The number of cases has been fairly typical for Virginia, according to Katherine McCombs, an epidemiology program manager for the Virginia Department of Health in Richmond. She said there was also one death reported last year.
Of the 23 vibriosis cases in Virginia this year, 11 involved residents of the Eastern Region. She said this region's proximity to bays, oceans and other bodies of water would make the numbers higher here than other parts of the state.
She also cautioned that some cases are not identified to health officials.
She said people need to keep in mind that if they suffer a cut or wound while in the water to immediately get out, wash the wound with soap and water, and do not re-enter the water.
Also, people with health conditions that compromise their immune system – such as hepatitis, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, HIV – should take extra precautions when swimming or crabbing, or when eating shellfish that has not been fully cooked. People with open wounds in their skin also should take extra precautions to avoid exposure.
Lemis said the majority of cases reported in the Hampton health district have been related to open wounds or from cuts suffered while around water. She said people should be careful around jetties, as the rocks can easily cause cuts. She also said that health officials don't always know the source of a bacteria exposure, and that in some cases, people have had exposure to both waterborne and seafood bacteria.
Symptoms to watch for are redness and swelling around the wound, fatigue and fever. Cases caused by ingesting bacteria from seafood include vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping.
Lemis said people should pay attention to advisories regarding bacteria levels at beaches, and to avoid such waters, especially if you have a disease or condition that compromises your immune system, or if you have a wound that could become infected.
Vibrio bacteria flourish naturally in warm water but would likely be higher in waters with high overall bacteria levels.
Lemis said vibriosis cases are likely under-reported because many people are able to easily recover without medical treatment, and might not even know they were exposed.
However, other people, such as those with diabetes or other conditions that put them at higher risk for infections can suffer sepsis, lose limbs and even die from the infections.
Lemis said she's seen children cut their feet at the beach without any parents around: "I tell them, 'Go straight home and clean that cut.'"
Elizabeth Simpson, 757-222-5003, email@example.com