Tompkins: Dangers of deadly bacteria in state's saltwater
Houston Chronicle Copyright 2012 Houston Chronicle. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. Updated 12:37 p.m., Thursday, June 28, 2012

[...] the night following a fishing trip on Texas' mid-coast, the elderly angler noticed the wound was beet red, swelling and hurt like the dickens. [...] after surgeries to remove the infected tissue, skin grafts and rehabilitation, the man survived his encounter with the tiny organism that arguably poses more serious danger to coastal anglers and others who recreate in marine waters than any other. Considering that hundreds of thousands of Texans annually swim, boat, fish or otherwise are exposed to marine water potentially holding vibrio vulnificus, odds of becoming one of the 20-25 Texans who, in an average year, suffer infections caused by the bacteria are laughably small - unless you, a family member or friend is one of those two dozen. "The best thing people can do is to have a heightened level of awareness about vibrio vulnificus, understand what to look for and how important it is to take immediate action if they suspect they have been infected," said Burns, chief of staff of DeTar Health Care System in Victoria, a private-practice plastic surgeon for 20 years and arguably one of the most experienced physicians in dealing with acute vibrio vulnificus infections. While pointing out that infections caused by vibrio vulnificus are rare, Burns stresses that anglers and others exposed to marine waters need to know the potential threat the bacteria poses. According to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of the 100 or so confirmed cases of vibrio vulnificus-caused infections documented nationally each year are triggered by consuming shellfish (almost always raw oysters) carrying the bacteria. Even things as seemingly innocuous as athlete's foot or psoriasis can prove an avenue for the bacteria to gain access to soft tissue where it can begin multiplying and become what generically is called "flesh-eating bacteria." Persons with compromised immune systems - diabetes, hepatitis or other liver diseases, cancer, those taking steroids - are most at risk for severe infections from the bacteria. [...] any sign of redness or swelling around a wound, particularly if the area gets larger or if the person begins having flu-like symptoms, should trigger an immediate trip to the doctor. Texas health regulations have since 1987 required doctors and hospitals to report confirmed cases of infections caused by vibrio vulnificus, a particularly virulent bacteria found in saltwater environments. Over the past decade, Texas has averaged about 20 documented cases of vibrio vulnificus infections and seven deaths each year. Because vibrio vulnificus infections can spread so rapidly, health officials recommend anyone who has been exposed to saltwater and notices increasing pain/redness/swelling/blistering of skin around a wound or skin break immediately seek professional medical care.