Timing is critical to successfully combat the progression of the infection, which can cause sepsis, says Dr. Ligia Pic-Aluas, an epidemiologist at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
Pic-Aluas once treated a patient who died from such an infection. He stayed on his yacht on the bay for several days after scraping his leg. When he finally arrived to the hospital, he was in septic shock and his blood pressure was not measurable, she tells WTOP.
The bacteria can enter any break in the skin, however small. Most of the time, infected cuts will crust over and heal. But if patients experience redness or swelling around the wound, or they have chills, sweats and general malaise, they should head to the doctor.
“Those are all alarm signals that the infection is severe and needs to be addressed,” says Pic-Aluas.
She has handled one case so far this year and the hospital treated at least one other patient with a confirmed case of the vibrio infection.
Anyone with a weakened immune system or who suffers from a chronic condition like liver disease should avoid swimming in the bay if they have an open wound.
Raw or undercooked oysters or other shell fish from the bay can also carry the bacteria and make those who eat the fish sick.
Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria, not caused by pollution, and is present in the bay any time the water temperature rises above 60 degrees, says Kathy Brohawn, an environmental program manager with the Maryland Department of Environment.
And not all species of vibrio cause illness.
She says anyone who swims, fishes or crabs along the bay should wash their hands with soap and water and take a shower after leaving the water. Picnickers should bring wipes to clean their hands before eating.
These common sense steps will protect most people from ever getting sick, Brohawn says.