Yearly pilgrimages to beaches and shorelines are central to most of our summer rituals. These trips serve as a chance to escape the daily hustle and bustle, spend quality time with family and reconnect with old friends. But a relaxing day in the sun could turn deadly with one misstep.
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Over the years, health records have shown a wave of infections from the bacteria known as Vibrio vulnificus spiking in the summer months in areas that border the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors and locals alike in popular warm-weather spots like the Florida shores have been contracting the bacteria and experiencing agonizing illnesses and even death.
While public health officials and experts emphasize that this is nothing new (this is the bacteria’s natural habitat and always has been) and that no one should fear to enter the coastal waters, knowing the risks and how to prevent infection can mean the difference between life and death.
Know The Signs
Vibrio parahaemolyticus and the more potent Vibrio vulnificus are bacteria that occur naturally in warm coastal areas such as the Gulf of Mexico. These bacteria are found in higher concentrations during the summer months when the water gets warmer, and with the populations of areas around the Gulf like Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas increasing due to vacationing families, these bacteria have even more of an opportunity to infect their unwitting hosts.
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These Vibrio bacteria can easily enter the body via a wound that is exposed to warm seawater. If infected with V. parahaemolyticus, you may only experience some unpleasant diarrhea, vomiting or abdominal pain. But for the elderly, the very young or those with conditions like liver disease, cancer or another immune-compromising condition, V. vulnificus can infect the bloodstream, causing a life-threatening illness. About half of V. vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal, and death can occur within two days. Less lethal symptoms include chills, fever, shock and skin lesions.
As ominous as Vibrio vulnificus can sound, there are precautions you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones. Regardless of your age or state of health, everyone should take caution when entering any ocean this season. You never want to get sick, whether your symptoms are simply a runny nose or something worse. Consider not taking a swim if you have a wound or cut that’s in the process of healing. Whether it’s covered or not, you are missing your protective layer and it will be open season for any kind of infection.
More recently, the CDC has been warning against contracting various strains of the Vibrio bacteria through our food. In a new report, which is based on data collected by the CDC’s FoodNet program, infections and poisonings caused by Vibrio rose 52 percent between the 2006 to 2008 testing period and that of 2011 to 2013. The Vibrio bacteria is usually spread by the consumption of raw shellfish, especially oysters, which makes sense since these foods are found in the same waters where vacationers are contracting infections.
About half the people infected by Vibrio vulnificus die, and many of those who survive the disease are left with life-altering disabilities, including amputations.
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Scientists are attributing the rising vibriosis rates to two likely factors—the high demand for raw oysters and better food safety monitoring systems that are catching more and more cases. Cooking oysters and shellfish thoroughly kills the bacteria, making the food safe to eat, but if you are a big fan of raw shellfish, you might want to think twice before consuming meals that come from or around the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
While no cases have been reported for 2015 yet, it’s only a matter of time. There have been a consistent number of infections and even deaths logged every year for the past few years by the time the summer season comes to a close, especially in the hotter months; the warmer the water, the higher the threat.
If you develop severe illness within a few days after eating raw or undercooked shellfish or after being exposed to warm coastal water, contact your doctor immediately. To learn more and for further safety information, visit cdc.gov.
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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Fall 2015 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.