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Is the 'Flesh-Eating Bacteria' That Terrifies the Gulf Coast Becoming More Common?

Vibrio vulnificus is a rare bacteria that can cause severe injuries and even death, and in recent years, locals in Louisiana have grown more worried about the dangerous microorganisms.
A microscope image of cells.

"When I shuffled into the water, I felt my foot go into something's mouth," recalls Kelly Blomberg of her last fishing trip to Grand Isle, Louisiana. "There was blood everywhere. LSU's biology department determined it was a baby blacktip shark. Thank god I didn't lose my foot from that!"

But the bite quickly became the least of Blomberg's problems. That wound allowed vibrio vulnificus—a rare microorganism sometimes called "flesh-eating bacteria"—to enter Blomberg's bloodstream.


Vulnificus doesn't actually eat flesh, but instead excretes a toxin that causes white blood cells to destroy the flesh to banish the intrusion. "At first my foot got huge, then there was a red line running up my leg. I was freaking out," says Blomberg, who after three months off work is only now beginning to heal. "The whole time that it was getting worse, nobody told me I had flesh-eating bacteria… there were tendons and muscle showing… They had to do a skin graft."

Though it's uncommon—the Centers for Disease Control confirm just 124 vibrio vulnificus cases reported in 2014—it can be a frightening and even deadly occurrence; many vulnificus victims lose a limb and around half of them die. "Vibrio has destroyed the lymphatic system on most of the left side of my body," Jocko Angle, who contracted a vulnificus infection after incurring an open wound at a Mississippi beach three years ago, tells VICE. "My left leg looks it has a bad case of diabetes. I've gone to several surgeons, and I've asked them to remove it."

August was the peak month for vibrio vulnificus in the Gulf of Mexico. The bacteria thrives on a perfect brackish mix of salt and fresh waters, around blood temperature or higher. It blooms thick in stagnant back bays, before summer storms flush it out and distribute it onto more active shores like Grand Isle.

Blomberg and Angle were relatively young and healthy when they contracted the bacteria, but they represent the exception rather than the rule, experts say.


"People say, 'I worry about letting my kids get in the Gulf water.' But kids are actually the least likely to get the disease," says retired professor of fisheries and Louisiana Sportsman writer Jerald Horst. According to Horst, over 90 percent of vulnificus victims entered the water with previous medical risk factors that compromised their immune systems. These include diabetes, leukemia, lymphoma, kidney disease, even alcoholism. "I'm 70 years old, and if I was on cancer medications, I might stay out of the water at Grand Isle. Otherwise, you are in almost no danger."

Vibrio vulnificus reports continue to grow marginally more frequent along the Gulf Coast, judging by annual stats from the Louisiana Office of Public Health, among other sources. Many locals also believe the bacteria is on the rise."I been living on Grand Isle since I'm a little kid, and I seen all the changes. In my time, I can't remember at anytime that anybody had this flesh eating bacteria," says Jules Malancon, a fourth-generation Grande Isle oyster fisherman. "But the last ten years, it's been lots of incidents of vibrio."

Some people chalk up this rise to the 2010 BP oil spill, and Malancon agrees. "During shrimp season, lotsa people coming down staying out on the water for sometimes a month, two months—and suddenly we gotta clean the beach every week it's so full of garbage," attests Melancon. "And when I worked on the tugboat, it was even worse. You got people with incidents of people pumping oil and sewerage and everything into the water."


Other more common types of vibrio, such as vibrio cholera, thrive on fecal bacteria. But the CDC and other experts say pollution doesn't cause vulnificus—and most only hint that filthy waters may provide conditions for the bacteria to live and breed. "The incidence of vulnificus isn't correlated with fecal pollution or fecal bacteria, but the presence of those things likely indicates an increase in organic nutrient, and vibrios like high-nutrient conditions," says James D Oliver, a professor of microbiology at the University of North Carolina. "I would say you'd find higher numbers of vulnificus in polluted (organic) waters, possibly of fecal origin, but it's the nutrient, not the fecal aspect."

The bacteria has been found to love tar—particularly the tar balls ubiquitous to some parts of the Gulf of Mexico in recent unfortunate years. In one limited study, Covadonga Arias, a professor of aquatic microbial genomics at Auburn University, found extremely high levels of vulnificus in beach tar balls. "Vibrio utilizes many types of carbon sources. They need organic matter to grow," says Arias. "Tar balls include a lot of organic carbons, and so also lot of vibrio.

"Ultimately, though, we honestly don't know what it means," she admits, since her team wasn't given money to do a more comprehensive study.

Vibrio may also seem to be on the rise, simply because ocean lovers and doctors are only now informed and on the lookout. "Vibrio is naturally occurring here. It lives in Louisiana year-round just like a speckled trout lives here," promises Horst. "We've just gotten better at diagnosing it. Not 20 years ago, most doctors gave you a blank look if you mentioned vulnificus, whether it was ingested by eating raw oysters, or if it entered through a wound. It was once routinely misdiagnosed."

The bad news is not that we've gotten better about identifying vulnificus, it's that we may have to deal with it in a lot more places. Climate change seems destined to exacerbate vibrio vulnificus by gifting the bacteria warmer waters in which to breed, and bigger storms to push it out into new, uncharted habitats. As the planet warms, vulnificus may be swimming elsewhere very soon.

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