Flesh-eating bacteria infection kills man in four days

By Cleve Wootson

A strand of the flesh-eating bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus came in contact with a cut on Michael Funk's leg. Photo / Getty Images
A strand of the flesh-eating bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus came in contact with a cut on Michael Funk's leg. Photo / Getty Images

About 80,000 people get some form of vibriosis every year, usually from eating raw or undercooked shellfish, according to the US Centres for Disease Control. For most, the worst symptoms are diarrhoea and vomiting.

Michael Funk was one of the unlucky ones.

On September 11, he was in Ocean City, cleaning his crab pots as he and his wife prepared to return to their winter home in Phoenix, according to the Daily Times of Salisbury, Maryland.

But somewhere in the murky water lurked a strand of flesh-eating bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus. It came in contact with a cut on his leg, and within hours he began to feel ill.

The infection moved rapidly. Days later, ulcerated and full of lesions, it was "like something out of a horror movie," his wife, Marcia, told the newspaper. The flesh-eating bacteria was in his bloodstream.

"The bacterium can invade the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness with symptoms like fever, chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock) and blistering skin lesions," according to the Florida Department of Health's vibriosis page. "Aggressive attention should be given to the wound site; for patients with wound infections, amputation of the infected limb is sometimes necessary."

Doctors diagnosed vibriosis quickly, and Funk was flown to a shock trauma hospital in Baltimore, where doctors amputated his leg. But it was too late. He died on September 15, four days after cleaning out the crab pots.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is investigating the matter, the newspaper reported, but hasn't issued an advisory. In 2014, officials issued a warning during a state record outbreak in the Chesapeake Bay.

Vibrio vulnificus occurs naturally in brackish, warm water with low salinity - the same kind of water that's ideal for shellfish and oysters.

A recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that "rising ocean temperatures related to global warming "is strongly associated with spread of vibrios, an important group of marine prokaryotes, and emergence of human diseases caused by these pathogens".

To determine the bacteria's growth, researchers used collections of plankton to determine how prevalent the micro organisms were.

"In eight out of nine regions of the North Atlantic, the study found that as temperatures warmed, numbers of vibrio bacteria also grew," the Washington Post's Chris Mooney wrote in August. Furthermore, it also showed a relationship between growing vibrio numbers and growing vibrio cases in humans, a relationship that was particularly pronounced during heat waves.

"... So in sum, it's more evidence supporting (coral reef scientist Jeremy) Jackson's point - we don't just damage the oceans with impunity. Rather, from harm to fisheries to direct human health threats, that damage hurts us, too."

- Washington Post

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