Floridians are urged to stay away from post-hurricane flooding because it could contain flesh-eating bacteria, as infections spike nationally.
Hurricane Idalia “brought hell” to the state’s Gulf Coast late last month, sweeping away $10 billion worth of property and killing at least two people.
However, now that the dust has settled, local health officials fear there may be an increase in infections caused by Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that normally lives in warm seawater brought inland by storms.
Bacteria can get into open wounds, even the smallest ones, and start eating away at the patients’ flesh. Data suggests that Vibrio infections more than double after hurricanes.
The warning comes amid a broader alert from the CDC about Vibrio infections across the country, including North Carolina, where millions of people flocked to the beach this Labor Day weekend.
The Florida Department of Health is warning residents to watch out for the flesh-eating bacteria Vibrio vulnificus that could be lurking in floodwaters.
The map above shows where cases of Vibrio vulnificus were detected in the United States between 2008 and 2018. The bacterium continues to push further north amid rising sea temperatures.
The infection can cause symptoms like those shown above. People with weakened immune systems, particularly those with chronic liver disease or who take medications that reduce the body’s ability to fight germs, are at higher 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 inhabits warm and brackish coastal waters, particularly along the Florida coast, although it has now been detected as far north as Alaska.
It can infect people who enter contaminated pools through cuts or abrasions, even minor ones.
Warning signs of infection appear within hours, and patients experience redness and swelling around the site of infection.
Without treatment, this can progress to necrosis (tissue death) and septicemia (an infection of the blood), putting patients at risk of limb amputations and death.
Prompt administration of antibiotics is vital to stop an infection.
However, when hurricane floods recede, they leave behind pools of standing water, which could be teeming with bacteria.
Swimming pools can be filled with raw sewage and get hot during the day, fueling the growth of bacteria and increasing the risk of infection.
The Florida Department of Health said late last month: ‘Following Idalia, flooding may pose potential health and safety risks, including Vibrio vulnificus that could travel inland with storm surge.
“Avoid walking or splashing in standing water,” they said, “especially if you have open wounds.”
Deaths from Vibrio infections skyrocket after hurricanes thanks to pools of standing water.
Last year, Florida recorded a record 17 deaths and 74 cases, with the increase linked to Hurricane Ian that tore through a 50-mile area from Fort Myers to Naples.
Of these cases, 28, or nearly 40 percent, were reported in Lee County, which was in the center of where the storm hit.
By comparison, the year before, when no hurricanes made landfall in Florida, there were 10 vibrio deaths and 34 infections. This suggests that Vibrio infections more than double after hurricanes.
The department’s press secretary, Jae Williams, said they began warning people about the infections “as soon as a state of emergency was declared.”
she added to NBC News: “It should be treated with due respect, the same way we respect alligators and rattlesnakes.”
There is often an increase in infections after hurricanes, as more people are exposed to the bacteria through standing puddles.
This reveals the increase in Vibrio cases in the state after Hurricane Ian.
Cleanup and recovery efforts are underway along the Gulf Coast, where the surge of seawater rushed inland for miles, inundating low-lying communities and roads in its path.
” class=”blkBorder img-share” style=”max-width:100%” />
The backyard of a home is seen flooded in Steinhatchee, Florida, on August 30, 2023, after Hurricane Idalia made landfall.
Pictured above is a house that collapsed during Hurricane Idalia. He is pictured at Horseshoe Beach, Florida on September 1.
However, the bacteria pose a risk to millions of Americans year-round because they prefer warm, brackish waters along the coasts, where people tend to swim.
Once confined to the Gulf of Mexico, warming waters have allowed it to seep into new areas and further north.
Cases have already been reported this year as far away as Florida, New York and Connecticut. Nine deaths have also been recorded.
Scientists fear that this advance will continue and that, by the year 2040, it will have reached every state in the United States.
According to scientists, about 30 percent of people who develop a Vibrio infection die from the disease.
Those who are healthy and have strong immune systems have a low risk of infection.
But people who have weaker immune systems, such as diabetics and cancer patients, are at higher risk of contracting the disease.