Floridans are being urged to avoid the post-hurricane floods as they may harbor flesh-eating bacteria — as infections rise nationwide.
Hurricane Idalia brought “hell” to the state’s Gulf Coast late last month, smashing its way through $10 billion worth of property and killing at least two people.
Now that the dust has settled, local health officials fear there could be a spike in infections caused by Vibrio vulnificus — a bacteria that normally lives in warm seawater brought inland by the storms.
The bacteria can get into open wounds, even small ones, and begin to eat away at patients’ flesh. Data shows that Vibrio infections more than double in the wake of hurricanes.
The warning comes amid a broader CDC warning of Vibrio infections across the country, including North Carolina, where millions took to the beach this Labor Day weekend.
Florida Department of Health warns residents to be wary of flesh-eating bacteria Vibrio vulnificus that could lurk in floods
The above map shows where cases of Vibrio vulnificus were detected in the United States between 2008 and 2018. The bacteria continues to advance further north amid rising sea temperatures.
The infection can cause symptoms as shown above. People with weakened immune systems — especially those with chronic liver disease or who take medications that reduce the body’s ability to fight off germs — are most at risk
Local health officials say the threat “should not be taken lightly,” adding that the bacteria should be treated with as much caution as “alligators and rattlesnakes.”
Vibrio vulnificus lives in warm coastal and brackish waters, especially along the Florida coastline, though it has now been discovered as far north as Alaska.
It can infect people who step into contaminated swimming pools from any cuts or abrasions, even minor ones, they have.
Warning signs of infection appear within hours, with patients suffering from redness and swelling around the site of infection.
Without treatment, this can progress to necrosis – tissue death – and septicemia – a blood infection – putting patients at risk for limb amputations and death.
Prompt administration of antibiotics is essential to curb an infection.
However, when floods caused by hurricanes recede, they leave behind stagnant pools of water — which can be peppered by the bacteria.
The pools can be supplied with raw sewage and are heated during the day, which encourages the growth of the bacteria and increases the risk of infection.
The Florida Department of Health said late last month: ‘After Idalia, flooding could pose potential health and safety risks, including Vibrio vulnificus that could travel inland during a storm surge.
“Avoid walking or wading in standing water,” they said, “especially if you have open wounds.”
Deaths from Vibrio infections skyrocket in the aftermath of hurricanes thanks to the stagnant pools of water.
Last year, Florida recorded a record 17 deaths and 74 cases — with the surge linked to Hurricane Ian that swept through an 50-mile area from Fort Myers to Naples.
Of these cases, 28 — or nearly 40 percent — were reported in Lee County, in the center of the storm.
By comparison, last year — when no hurricanes made landfall in Florida — there were 10 vibrio fatalities and 34 infections. This suggests that Vibrio infections more than double after hurricanes.
The department’s press secretary, Jae Williams, said they started warning people about the infections “as soon as a state of emergency was declared.”
she added NBC news“It should be treated with proper respect, just as we respect alligators and rattlesnakes.”
There is often a spike in infection rates after hurricanes, as more people are exposed to the bacteria through stagnant pools.
The above reveals the spike in Vibrio cases in the state in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian
Cleanup and recovery efforts are underway along the Gulf Coast, where the wave of seawater rushed miles inland, flooding low-lying communities and roads in its path
A backyard of a home is flooded in Steinhatchee, Florida on August 30, 2023 after Hurricane Idalia made landfall
Pictured above is a house that collapsed during Hurricane Idalia. It is pictured at Horseshoe Beach, Florida, on Sept. 1
However, the bacteria pose a year-round risk to millions of Americans because they prefer warm, brackish water along the shoreline — where people tend to swim.
Once confined to the Gulf of Mexico, warming waters have allowed it to seep into new areas and further and further north.
This year it has already been reported as far as Florida, New York and Connecticut. Nine deaths have also been recorded.
Scientists fear that this progress will only continue and that by the year 2040 it will have reached every state in the US.
About 30 percent of people who develop a Vibrio infection die from the disease, scientists say.
Those who are healthy and have strong immune systems have a low risk of infection.
But people with weaker immune systems — such as diabetics and cancer patients — are at greater risk for the disease.