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Misleading TV Report Raises Overblown Fears About “Flesh-Eating” Bacteria on Beaches

| August 1, 2014

If the vibrio vulnificus virus is going to be contracted anywhere, it’ll be from eating raw oysters or standing in brackish waters, such as those of the Intracoastal, with cuts in one’s legs–not in the ocean, says Patrick Johnson, director of Flagler County’s Health Department. (© FlaglerLive)

If the vibrio vulnificus virus is going to be contracted anywhere, it’ll be from eating raw oysters or standing in brackish waters, such as those of the Intracoastal, with cuts in one’s legs–not in the ocean, says Patrick Johnson, director of Flagler County’s Health Department. (© FlaglerLive)

Flagler County Health Department Director Patrick Johnson and his staff have been fielding calls from tourists worried about reports of “flesh-eating” bacteria on local beaches. One would-be tourist called this morning from Illinois, rethinking his trip to Florida. Johnson and his staff have been telling worried callers to relax: the reports are misleading or outright false.

The reports were prompted by a news story on WPEC-TV, a West Palm Beach station that reported on the case of a Treasure Coast man who had a “possible infection” from the vibrio vulnificus virus, and a “blanket alert from Jacksonville to the Panhandle to be careful.”

The news report features images of the beach. But the virus does not affect ocean-side beaches, Johnson says.

“Vibrio is in brackish water, it’s in brackish water everywhere,” Johnson said. “It’s also the bacteria that sometimes is in raw oysters, and people who have trouble with vibrio, it’s generally related to liver problems. This thing has been all over the media and there’s been a lot of misconceptions about it because they do say it’s in the ocean. It’s not in the ocean.”

For those wading or fishing in brackish waters, the virus can only infect them if they have cuts on their legs or feet.

The television news report claims that “The Florida Department of Health reported that 32 people have contracted the flesh-eating bacteria and 10 have died from the strain.” Not so: And so far this year, there’s only been 11 confirmed cases in all of Florida, and two fatalities–one in Lee, one in Dixie County, according to the department’s latest figures, which were last updated July 25.

By mid-afternoon Friday, the department had updated its figures as of Aug. 1, raising the confirmed cases to 13, and the fatalities to three, with the new fatality in Sarasota. Yet WTSP, a TV station in Tampa, was still incorrectly reporting 2013 tallies as those of 2014–even though the link it provided for the figures led to the Department of Health’s correct and much lower 2014 totals.

The virus can be fatal, but most of the time it isn’t. Last year, according to department figures, there were 41 cases statewide and 11 fatalities, one of them registered in Flagler County, though the infection had been contracted in Intracoastal waters in the Tomoka area in Volusia County.

There’s been no reported cases in Flagler this year, Johnson said.

Vibrio vulnificus, the cholera-like bacteria.

Vibrio vulnificus.

The TV report begins with an anchor speaking alarmingly of “the high levels of the flesh-eating bacteria that have been reported in the waters off the Treasure Coast,” then cuts to a reporter positioned on a beach access walk, pointing at the ocean, though the report then quotes one person saying that the bacteria is present in brackish water, not in the ocean. The reporter repeats that there are “no confirmed cases on the Tresasure Coast nor in Palm Beach County,” but claims “the bulk” of the cases are in Volusia and Broward. Again, not the case: As of July 25, not a single case had been reported in Volusia or Broward, nor in St. Johns, for that matter. One, non-fatal case is recorded in Duval. Volusia had two reported cases last year, neither of them fatal. Broward had five, two of them fatal.

“This is the warmest time of year and the two things that always come up in terms of I guess publicity is vibrio vulnificus,” Johnson said, “and the other one which sometimes gets kind of mixed up, is naegleria, that’s the one people can be exposed to in the nose, when they are swimming in a lake,” but lakes with more stagnant waters, not spring-fed bodies of water. “People who swim in a lake should wear a nose clip, but that’s totally different from vibrio, and people mix them up.” Cases of naegleria are more rare than vibrio.

Health officials urge caution, not fear.

Regarding vibrio, “The message really is it’s in brackish water. If you have cuts in your feet or legs you shouldn’t be standing in that water, and you shouldn’t be consuming raw oysters,” Johnson said. And that man who called him from Illinois this morning, worried about visiting? He’s coming to Flagler Beach.

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6 Responses for “Misleading TV Report Raises Overblown Fears About “Flesh-Eating” Bacteria on Beaches”

  1. Jon Hardison says:

    Well that settles that. Now all we need is to find out whatever happened to those piranha they found in retention ponds in SOFL. They said they needed to check to see if they were male and female and never mentioned them again. We could also address the well known fears about the tornado based super ghost sharktopus that’s plagued the pears and inlets of our area for decades, feeding almost exclusively on visiting Abercrombie customers.


      Jon: You forgot to mention the highly deadly Portuguese Seabiscuit, which prowls the Flagler coast in search of the elusive Banana Republic Hollister.

    • Patty Konietzky says:

      You might want to try and remember that there are real people out there reading these posts who are related to the victims of this horrible bacteria. My husband of 35 years together was the 9th fatality in 2013. I’ll never understand why people need to be so cruel.

      • Jon Hardison says:

        It certainly wasn’t my intent to be cruel and I’d like to sincerely apologize if that’s the impression you were left with. I too, know people that lost almost everything, seemingly over night, to these infections, thankfully not their lives, and I promise you I wasn’t making light of those losses.

        The point I was trying to raise was that Florida doesn’t do a particularly good job talking to residents or visitors about dangers such as these, and it makes sense. Most Florida residents moved here from someplace else. Most visitors would be less likely to choose Florida for their vacations if they were confronted with this type of information. Whether about Flesh Eating Bacteria or the appearance of Piranha, which, by the way, is the one thing I said in my post that is true.

        I made light of it because I don’t see it changing. This was perhaps a bad attempt at making a mockery of Florida’s view of it’s obligations in this regard.

        As you said, your husband lost his battle in 2013, and I’m so sorry for your loss.
        I only wish Florida would do a better job of informing us on these dangers, and in so doing, help prevent future loss.

        Again, my apologies.

  2. Seminole Pride says:

    Lakes and Canals are not a good place to swim this time of year. Bacteria is very active and if swallowed can cause hepatitis, ,juantis, and flu like symptoms. Be careful swimming in water that does not have a current or flow. and water temperature is over 80 degrees.

  3. Franklins Tower says:

    Kind of reminds me of the mayor in Jaws. All kidding aside, we need to be careful in the river at this time of the year. As far as oysters go, they don’t taste good in the summer because they’re breeding. So, why even take a chance of vibrio? I have had vibrio twice. The first time in Ohio of all places from fried oysters at a now defunct restaurant chain called Po Folks. The second time was from mussels in ciopino at a restaurant in Bodega Bay, Ca. I was sick as heck both times but nearly bought the farm from the Bodega Bay incident. It is a very serious disease.

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