CAMBRIDGE — A cautious warning about the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus was issued Tuesday, Aug. 5, to the Dorchester County Council by Dorchester Health Officer Roger Harrell.
There are usually about 50 cases of Vibrio infection in Maryland each year, Harrell said, with 57 reported in 2013 and five so far this year.
Among those five cases in Maryland is a Talbot County waterman who contracted the bacteria a few weeks ago and another person who became ill after swimming in Chesapeake Bay near the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, Harrell said.
Humans began having problems with the Vibrio bacteria in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Harrell said, with more than 900 cases occurring in Gulf states between 1998 and 2006.
Harrell said Vibrio became an infection that had to be reported nationally in 2007.
“It has to have a high temperature,” Harrell said, with Vibrio now occurring naturally in salty and brackish waters in the region between May and October.
A Vibrio infection left untreated can reach a stage where the bacteria destroys flesh around an open wound, but Harrell suggested that should not be a problem for those who seek immediate medical attention for a wound that develops unusual redness, swelling or drainage. Often there is also fever.
Contracting Vibrio can be fatal if it is ignored for too long. “Around one-third, if it is not treated aggressively, will die,” Harrell said.
Although infection with Vibrio occurs primarily because of water contact with a wound, state health officials advise always showering after swimming in Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries and washing your hands before handling food.
Wear gloves and use extra care when handling crab pots and other equipment.
If you have a wound and cannot avoid water contact, waterproof bandages are advised. Following contact, clean the wound with soap and water or hand sanitizer, followed by soap and water as soon as possible.
If wading or swimming in Bay waters, wear water shoes to avoid cuts and scrapes. Harrell advised waiting 48 hours after it rains before swimming in local waters.
Although infection with Vibrio is rare, Harrell said, “It exists. It’s in the water. Understand it is there.”
Another form of Vibrio can infect through eating raw or undercooked shellfish with symptoms including high fever, low blood pressure, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain.
Vibrio symptoms start 12 to 72 hours after exposure.
Antibiotics are needed to treat Vibrio, which is why it is important to contact a doctor for treatment as soon as possible.