Rare ‘Flesh-Eating’ Bacterium Spreads North as Oceans Warm

by | Oct 13, 2023 | Health

Debbie King barely gave it a second thought when she scraped her right shin climbing onto her friend’s pontoon for a day of boating in the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 13.

Even though her friend immediately dressed the slight cut, her shin was red and sore when King awoke the next day. It must be a sunburn, she thought.

But three days later, the red and blistered area had grown. Her doctor took one look and sent King, 72, to the emergency room.

Doctors at HCA Florida Citrus Hospital in Inverness, Florida, rushed King into surgery after recognizing the infection as Vibrio vulnificus, a potentially fatal bacterium that kills healthy tissue around a wound. While King lay on the operating table, the surgeon told her husband she would likely die if they didn’t amputate.

Just four days after the scrape, King lost her leg then spent four days in intensive care.

“The flesh was gone; it was just bone,” she said of her leg.

Cases of V. vulnificus are rare. Between 150 and 200 are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every year, with about 20% resulting in death. Most are in states along the Gulf of Mexico, but, in 2019, 7% were on the Pacific Coast. Florida averages about 37 cases and 10 deaths a year.

But a rise in cases nationally and the spread of the di …

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