Beware: How to avoid rare flesh-eating bacteria in Chesapeake Bay

SOLOMONS, Md. — As summer kicks off, here’s what you need to know about certain bacteria that live in waterways, including the Chesapeake Bay. 

Infections from Vibrio vulnificus are relatively rare, but you have a higher risk of infection or serious complications if you have a health problem such as diabetes, cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, or if you’ve recently had stomach surgery.

“If you have any of those illnesses, please stay away from oysters and raw fish,” infectious disease expert Dr. Rita Colwell said during a lecture on the topic last week at the Calvert Marine Museum.

Colwell, a former director of the National Science Foundation, is currently a distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland College Park and the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Eating raw, contaminated oysters is the No. 1 way people get infected.

The second most-common way: exposing a wound or cut to salt or brackish water.

Another reason these bacteria are so concerning is that the infection moves fast, and getting the correct treatment quickly is crucial.

“One or two days and you can be in deep trouble,” Colwell said.

Last year, a man who cut himself while cleaning crab pots during a visit to Ocean City died four days later.

Colwell said people who fight off the infection and survive can lose body parts.

“Limb amputation — foot or fingers — is not unusual,” she said.

Symptoms of infection include chills, high fever, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

When the condition advances, you can have high fever, a drop in blood pressure, septic shock, blisters and lesions.

Mauro Lanzisera, a retired Prince George’s County firefighter who lives in Calvert County, became infected in 2010 after he slipped on a dock and cut his leg.

“Two days later, it felt like somebody took an ice pick and drove it through my ankle,” he told WTOP.

The infection was initially misdiagnosed as a sprain. He eventually got the correct treatment, but endured six surgeries and a long rehabilitation.

Another Calvert County resident, marine scientist Dr. Kent Mountford, was also infected in 2010. He was cleaning an anchor line when he scratched one of his fingers.

“At about two in the morning, I woke up. This thing itched furiously and it was swollen,” he told WTOP.

Mountford made trips to two different emergency rooms before getting the infection under proper control.

In 2016, the University of Maryland led an international study that found a strong connection between warming water temperatures in the north Atlantic and the number of Vibrio bacteria found there.

Colwell says she and other scientists have been working on developing a Vibrio index, much like a pollen index, that would give people an idea of the risk of infection before they head to the water.

Learn more about Vibrio and how to prevent an infection from the state of Maryland. Read more about these bacteria from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter turned morning anchor at WTOP News.

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