Hurricane Ian is blamed for deadly bacterial infections in Florida
By Christine Chung
When Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwestern Florida late last month, officials urged residents to avoid wading in stormwaters, which they warned could be contaminated with dangerous chemicals and bacteria.
But avoiding the water proved to be a challenge, as streets were inundated and cars engulfed, and the floodwater made it into homes and countless other structures in the hurricane’s path.
In the storm’s aftermath, there has been a rise in reported cases of Vibrio vulnificus, a rare and potentially deadly bacterial infection that can cause tissue around open wounds to die. There are 28 cases of it in Florida, state data shows. At least seven people have died, according to a spokesperson for the state Health Department.
These infections, while rare, can occur when open wounds come into contact with contaminated water, the state’s Health Department said. The bacteria live in brackish water, or a blend of fresh and seawater, the Lee County Health Department said, stressing that immediate treatment after the onset of symptoms was crucial.
All but two of the cases were in Lee County, the municipality that bore the brunt of Hurricane Ian’s force.
Tammy Soliz, a spokesperson for the Lee County Health Department, said the hurricane had brought an “abnormal increase” in these infections “as a result of exposure to the floodwaters and standing water following Hurricane Ian.”
An “astronomical amount of rain” and flooding made conditions ripe for this bacteria, said Jae Williams, a spokesperson for the Florida Health Department.
“When you have standstill water in environments such as tropical Florida, it creates a perfect cocktail for these bacteria to develop,” Williams said.
In an Oct. 3 news release, the Lee County Health Department emphasized that contracting Vibrio vulnificus could cause “severe illness or death.”
“Anyone can get a Vibrio vulnificus infection; however, infections can be severe for people with weakened immune systems,” the health department said.
Symptoms can include skin lesions, low blood pressure, fever and chills.
While Vibrio vulnificus infections are not transmitted among people, they can be contracted in numerous ways, such as eating raw oysters or if a person’s wound touches contaminated seafood or its juices, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Treatment can range from a course of antibiotics to limb amputation, the CDC said. Infection can be fatal, and about 1 in 5 people who contract Vibrio vulnificus die, “sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill,” the CDC said.
Some, but not all, Vibrio vulnificus infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, when the skin around a wound is infected and tissue dies, sometimes referred to as “flesh-eating bacteria,” the public health agency said. The Vibrio strain is not the only one that triggers necrotizing fasciitis.
For necrotizing fasciitis, a speedy diagnosis and treatment is critical, the CDC said. The agency estimated about 700 to 1,150 cases occur each year in the United States, a range it described as “likely an underestimate.”
Last year in Florida there were 34 cases of Vibrio vulnificus and 10 deaths, according to state data. For 2022, up until the day before Hurricane Ian made landfall, there were 37 reported cases of Vibrio vulnificus, according to state data.
Over the years, there have been other reports of deadly bacterial infections after extreme weather events. At least two individuals in Texas died from necrotizing fasciitis after Hurricane Harvey, a powerful storm that struck the Houston area five years ago.