“Flesh-eating” Bacteria News Reports Often Hype, Not Educate
By: Scott Packard
Director of Communications
Galveston County Health District
It happens every year. As the weather warms, the words “flesh-eating bacteria” cycle into headlines and social media feeds. After all, those words are much more likely to grab attention than Vibrio vulnificus, the actual name of the bacteria.
Many news reports, whether through hype or the lack of comprehensive information, give the impression of a public health emergency when one does not exist. As a result, we at the Galveston County Health District receive hundreds of calls from unnecessarily panicked people.
Reports rarely highlight the fact Vibrio vulnificus is naturally in saltwater everywhere, the rarity of infections, common pre-existing conditions of those affected or ways to protect against infection. The reports also tend to misinform people that Texas Beach Watch advisories are alerts for “flesh-eating bacteria” when they actually are not.
More than 10 million people visited Texas beaches in 2015 and less than 0.00035% acquired Vibrio vulnificus. Most of those who get infections recover without long-term health consequences. By comparison, 100 times as many people were killed in vehicle crashes in Texas during the same year.
The fact is every year a small number of people get Vibrio vulnificus from beach water. It’s unfortunate and an unpleasant experience. But another less-known fact is almost all those affected were at an increased risk due to diabetes, liver disease, or cancer and had open sores or wounds when they got into the water. Healthy people are extraordinarily less likely to get an infection than the ill.
Swimming in natural bodies of water anywhere comes with risk. To reduce it, beachgoers with open cuts or sores, especially those with pre-existing conditions, should avoid swimming or check with their doctor first.
If you cut yourself while in natural bodies of water anywhere, immediately leave the water, thoroughly clean the wound and do not return until the wound heals. It’s important to keep an eye on the area for infection or swelling. If either occur, get medical attention immediately. Vibrio vulnificus infections are treatable. Consider wearing water shoes while swimming and gloves or waders while fishing to help prevent cuts.
Texas Beach Watch
Texas Beach Watch advisories are NOT for “flesh-eating bacteria,” rather Enterococcus, a bacteria commonly found in rainwater runoff. Advisories typically last 48 hours and can be avoided by moving a few blocks to a beach that’s not under advisory. Although infection from Enterococcus is also rare and often less serious than Vibrio vulnificus, the same risk factors apply and same precautions should be followed. Visit www.gchd.org/beachwatch for more information about Texas Beach Watch.
Research the Facts
We at the Galveston County Health District urge you to research facts online from sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Texas Department of State Health Services or our website, www.gchd.org/beachwater.
Be careful driving to the beach and always be cautious in natural bodies of water.
Scott Packard is director of communications for the Galveston County Health District, including Coastal Health & Wellness, the Animal Resource Center and Galveston Area Ambulance Authority.
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