MELBOURNE, Fla. — A flesh-eating bacteria in the same family as those that cause cholera has killed nine people in Florida this year, most recently a 59-year-old who was wading in the Halifax River to set crab traps.
Henry Konietzky, 59, of Palm Coast, Fla., died Sept. 23 after setting the traps two days earlier in the river near Ormond Beach, Fla. The very next day, he noticed he had a sore on his leg that looked like a bug bite.
That's one way the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria is transmitted. It lives in warm, salty water.
When it comes in contact with an open wound, it can cause lesions. High-risk individuals, such as those with liver disease or cancer, have a 50% fatality rate.
"It's not that serious" for people who are generally healthy, said Heidar Heshmati, Brevard County health director, about an infection contracted through an open wound. "But you will have a huge infection in the skin and you will be treated for that."
Two Brevard County men — a 62-year-old from Rockledge, Fla., and a 74-year-old from Melbourne, Fla. — have recovered from the potentially fatal bacteria that infected their skin after they went fishing in Indian River Lagoon. Twenty-seven cases of the infection have been reported to the Florida Department of Health this year.
Brevard County generally has one to four cases each year, Heshmati said.
About half of infected wounds require surgical removal of damaged tissue or amputation.
The bacteria is much more serious when ingested. Eating a single contaminated oyster can kill.
Florida averages 50 cases, 45 hospitalizations and 16 deaths annually, most in the Gulf Coast region, according to the state Department of Health. Across the country, about 95 cases, 85 hospitalizations and 35 deaths occur.
The bacteria rarely causes disease, and as a result is underreported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 1988 and 2006, CDC received reports of more than 900 infections from the Gulf Coast states, where most cases happen.
Illness usually begins within one to three days of exposure, but up to a week later for a small percentage of cases, according to the CDC. Symptoms include fever, swelling and redness of skin on arms or legs, with blood-tinged blisters, low blood pressure and shock.
Health officials urge people to cook all seafood thoroughly and to avoid going into the water with open wounds. Even an ant bite or any tiny wound can allow an entry point for the bacteria.
Vibrio vulnificusis part of a group of bacteria called "halophilic" because they require salt. It dies at salt levels typical of the ocean but thrives at lower to moderate salt concentrations, such as those found in Indian River Lagoon or mouths of rivers near oceans.
The bacteria is most dangerous when ingested in oysters or other contaminated food.
Of the nine deaths this year in Florida, health officials say four were likely from exposure to seawater, three from eating raw oysters and two from undetermined routes of exposure.
Recent studies have shown that rising water temperatures from climate change have increased the risk of Vibrio vulnificus infection in higher latitudes, especially the northern European countries that surround the Baltic Sea.
But the bacteria has long been here.
"I don't know that there's any increase at all," Jim Oliver, a professor of microbiology at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, said of the recent cases in Florida. "There are more cases in Florida than anywhere else."