A Rare, Flesh-Eating Infection Has Killed 8 People in Florida This Year

A Rare, Flesh-Eating Infection Has Killed 8 People in Florida This Year
A person walking on the beach during sunset on July 16, 2007 in Marco Island, Florida (Photo: Marc Serota, Getty Images)

A bacterial infection has killed at least eight people in Florida this year so far, health officials reported recently. Twenty people in the state overall have been sickened by the waterborne bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, a relative of cholera infamously known for sometimes causing a flesh-eating infection.

Vibrio bacteria are found abundantly in marine environments and brackish waters. Harmful species of Vibrio, including V. vulnificus, usually make us sick when we eat naturally contaminated and undercooked seafood or drink water contaminated by other infected people’s faeces, the latter a common problem in countries with poor sanitation. These infections cause gastrointestinal symptoms, particularly diarrhoea.

But V. vulnificus also has the unfortunate ability to cause necrotizing fasciitis when it finds its way into open wounds: a rapidly spreading infection that starts to kill off skin and underlying muscle as early as a day after exposure (hence its charming nickname of the “flesh-eating disease”). The infection can then set off a potentially fatal immune response called sepsis that requires immediate treatment. Even with treatment, one in five victims die, while survivors may be left with large scars or amputated limbs.

There are many species of bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis, but in Florida, V. vulnificus has been a persistent if still very rare source of these nightmarish infections.

According to the Florida Department of Health, 20 people are known to have contracted V. vulnificus in the state this year as of early September. Eight have died as a result, with the latest death being confirmed Friday by Leon County officials, according to Outbreak News Today.

Wound infections from V. vulnificus are thought to be most common during the summer months, when more people are out swimming. So the flesh-eating season may be drawing to a close soon. That said, it’s the most deaths reported in Florida since 2018, which saw nine deaths.

Necrotizing fasciitis is very rare in general. But some scientists worry that these infections could become more common in the years to come, thanks in part to climate change. Warmer water temperatures, higher sea levels, and more frequent extreme weather events that lead to flooding are all risk factors that will likely expose us to V. vulnificus more often. So, yeah, just some food for thought.