Eastern Shore fisherman succumbs to rare infection

Talbot health official issues Vibrio warning

August 11, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

An Eastern Shore fisherman has died from a rare bacterial blood infection caused when an open cut on his body came in contact with contaminated marine life or salt water, the Talbot County Health Department said yesterday.

Dr. Ann H. Webb, deputy health officer for the county, declined to release specifics about the death caused by Vibrio vulnificus, saying she wanted to protect the privacy of the patient and his family. But Webb said the man was healthy until a skin abrasion became infected while fishing during the past month on the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's very rare, ... and it shouldn't cause any panic," Webb said. "But we'd like to make people aware that when the bay temperature rises, they should not eat raw seafood. And if they go swimming, they should not have any open lesions, and they should rinse themselves off well after they leave the water."

The last confirmed death from Vibrio in Maryland happened more than a quarter-century ago, health experts said.

Although fatal Vibrio infections are almost unheard of in the Chesapeake region, about 100 people a year nationally become sick from the bacteria when they eat raw oysters or touch contaminated fish or crabs, according to the U.S, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 38 percent of the people who contract Vibrio infections die.

The number of infections has grown by about a third over the last nine years, according to the agency.

The reason for the increase is unclear, but it could be related to more people playing and fishing in coastal areas, or environmental changes that aren't understood, said John Painter, an epidemiologist with the CDC.

"The most important thing is that if anybody receives a wound at the seashore, they should wash it carefully," said Painter. "If they see any changes in the wound, they should go to a physician," who should culture the bacteria and consider treatment with antibiotics, he said.

Vibrio vulnificus is a naturally occurring, waterborne bacteria similar to the germ that causes cholera. Vibrio is commonly found in the Gulf of Mexico and other warm bodies of salt water, reproducing more as temperatures rise. It normally causes serious problems only to people with weakened immune systems, said Rita Colwell, a microbiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"Vibrio is notorious for getting into wounds, and once it gets into the blood system, it's devastating. It essentially liquefies the internal organs," she said. "It's very, very serious, especially to anybody with liver diseases or immune deficiencies." The last confirmed death from Vibrio in Maryland happened in September 1979, according to Colwell and a Sun article from the time.

A 41-year-old Hampden resident was crabbing on the Eastern Shore when a blue crab pinched his leg. The leg swelled and eventually had to be amputated during a 12-day battle with the infection at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

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