Katherine McCombs, a foodborne disease epidemiology program coordinator at the health department, said the person died from a Vibrio infection. She said she couldn’t say when the person died or came into contact with the bacteria. She said it happened in the health department’s eastern region, which includes the Hampton Roads area.
So far this year, 23 people in Virginia have contracted illnesses tied to Vibrio, according to health officials, which is up slightly from last year. The death is the first this year in Virginia.
Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria found in brackish or warm salt waters that can cause serious infections. The most common species that cause illness in Virginia are Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus, according to health officials.
The person who died in Virginia suffered an infection from the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. It is more rare and is often underreported, according to the state’s health department. Vibrio vulnificus is more often found in states along the Gulf Coast. In Virginia, there are typically fewer than 10 cases reported each year, according to state health officials.
With Vibrio vulnificus illnesses, a person typically becomes infected if they have a cut or open wound exposed to brackish water that becomes contaminated with the bacteria. Symptoms include redness around the wound, swelling at the cut area, fever, tiredness and generally “feeling poorly,” McCombs said.
In New Jersey, a man who had been crabbing near the Delaware Bay became ill earlier this month from a Vibrio infection. The family of Angel Perez said he made several trips to a hospital’s emergency room with redness and blistering on his legs. It was later discovered that Vibrio bacteria had found its way into a cut or open sore on his leg.
Doctors had at one point mistakenly diagnosed Perez as having a minor bacterial infection, his family said. Another time, it was thought to be cellulitis. Eventually, the infection spread and was in all four limbs.
The other type, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, is more common in Virginia. One can become infected after eating raw or undercooked shellfish.
Symptoms include nausea, stomach cramping, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Typically, symptoms show up 12 to 24 hours after being exposed.
Some strands of Vibrio can be life-threatening.
According to the Florida Department of Health, “bacterium can invade the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness with symptoms like fever, chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock) and blistering skin lesions.” It also said for those with wound infections, “amputation of the infected limb is sometimes necessary.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vibriosis causes about 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths each year in the United States. Most infections happen between May and October, when water temperatures are warmer.
Virginia health officials also said they see more infections reported in the summer, when bacteria in water reproduce more quickly. McCombs said that during summer months, “people go to the beach more and they’re exposed more than in the wintertime.”
To avoid infection, health officials said, anyone with a cut or wound should avoid salt or brackish water. If a cut or wound is exposed, officials suggest washing the wound with soap and clean water.
Residents were also being advised to eat only shellfish that has been fully cooked.
Those with liver or kidney diseases, diabetes, or weakened immune systems are up to 80 times more likely to develop an infection of Vibrio vulnificus than those who are otherwise healthy, state health officials said.
Anyone who has symptoms of a Vibrio infection and thinks he or she might have come into contact with the bacteria should contact a health professional, officials said.