The presence of a rare flesh-eating bacteria has been spreading across the United States, infecting beach goers and fish-eaters, leading to severe infections, limb amputations and death.
Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that can enter open wounds and cause life-threatening infections, thrives in warm water and has been found on beaches from Florida to New Jersey and even as far north as Alaska. It can also be present in undercooked or raw seafood, such as oysters.
Debbie King from Florida suffered a cut when she was climbing onto her friend’s boat in the Gulf of Mexico in August. While she initially thought nothing of the abrasion, just four days later doctors amputated her leg in order to save her life after it became infected with Vibrio vulnificus.
Once confined to the Gulf of Mexico, Vibrio vulnificus — which thrives in warm and brackish water — has now spread into new areas because of warming ocean temperatures.
Vibrio vulnificus is beginning to spread across the United States due to warming ocean temperatures
Warning signs of a Vibrio vulnificus infection appear within hours, with patients suffering from redness and swelling around the infection site
Anyone with an open wound — even a paper cut — should avoid swimming in areas where Vibrio vulnificus has been identified in order to avoid exposure.
If people go swimming with cuts or abrasions, even minor ones, they run the risk of the bacteria getting into their wounds and eating away at their flesh.
In 2023, a total of nine deaths have been reported so far in Florida, New York and Connecticut, but the presence of the bacteria is spreading fast and scientists fear Vibrio could reach every US coastal state by the year 2040.
A friend of Ms King’s, 72, tended to her cut but when she awoke the next morning, her shin was red and sore. Thinking it was just sunburn, she ignored it — until three days later when the red and blistered area grew and her doctor immediately sent her to the emergency room.
Doctors in the hospital recognized signs of the bacteria, which thrives in the body and spreads extremely fast, and rushed Ms King into surgery. In the waiting room, a surgeon told Ms King’s husband if they didn’t amputate her leg, she could die.
Ms King told the Tampa Bay Times: ‘The flesh was gone; it was just bone.’
Debbie King (right) contracted Vibrio vulnificus after scrapping her leg when climbing into her friend’s boat in waters off the coast of Florida
While the only signs of the infection were on her shin, when doctors operated they discovered it had spread, forcing them to amputate Ms King’s leg higher than initially planned. Doctors had hoped they would only have to amputate at the knee, but eventually amputated from five inches above.
Four days after scrapping her leg, Ms King lost the limb and spent four days in the intensive care unit in critical care battling sepsis, a serious reaction to an infection in the body that leads to organ failure.
When Ms King woke up in the hospital, her son informed her that she had lost her leg, but the medication she was on made her mind cloudy and she didn’t intitally comprehend her situation.
It wasn’t until she was moved to a rehab hospital that she took in the gravity of what had happened to her.
She felt she had lost some of her independence and self-reliant identity. One morning, she could not stop crying, saying ‘It hit me like a ton of bricks.’
Her mental status declined and multiple healthcare workers in the facility urged her to meet with a psychologist. After several sessions with one, Ms King reframed what had happened to her and began to heal emotionally, alongside her physical recovery aided by physical therapy.
Ms King finally returned home, where she continues with her therapy routine, including learning how to stand on her remaining leg and using her wheelchair.
While she says her recovery still feels like a journey, she has become more comfortable with her amputation and has even nicknamed her ‘stump’ Peg.
As she continues to progress, she says she is determined to regain even more movement and walk with a prosthetic leg.
She told the Times: ‘This is the most horrific thing that can happen to anybody.
‘But I’d sit back and think, “God put you here for a reason — you’ve got more things to do.”’
Vibrio vulnificus can also be contracted by eating contaminated raw or undercooked fish, such as in the case of Laura Barajas, a 40-year-old mom from California.
After contracting the bacteria from undercooked tilapia in June, she had to have all four of her limbs amputated to save her life and she spent months in the hospital battling an infection.
Her friend, Anna Messina told News 19 Ms Barajas ‘almost lost her life’ and doctors had to put her in a medically induced coma
Ms Messina said: ‘Her fingers were black, her feet were black her bottom lip was black. She had complete sepsis and her kidneys were failing.’
Barajas, mother to a six-year-old boy, became sick in late July days after eating the fish that she had purchased at a local market in San Jose
A GoFundMe page was set up to help Ms Barajas and her family cover medical costs and ongoing care needs. It has raised more than $140,000.
Warning signs of a Vibrio vulnificus infection appear within hours, with patients suffering from redness and swelling around the infection site.
Without treatment, this can progress to necrosis — tissue death — and septicemia — a blood infection — putting patients at risk of limb amputations and death.
Swift administration of antibiotics is vital to treat the infection.
Healthy people are at low risk of an infection, doctors said, because their immune systems will likely be able to fight off the bacteria.
But those with weaker immune systems — like diabetics and cancer patients — are at a much higher risk of catching the disease.
Cases are rare, with about 150 to 200 reported in the US each year. About 30 percent of people who develop an infection from Vibrio vulnificus die from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).