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Filthy floodwaters from Hurricane Ian drove wave of flesh-eating infections

A resident of Gulf Air mobile home park walks through floodwaters from Hurricane Ian through her neighborhood near Fort Myers Beach on September 29.
Enlarge / A resident of Gulf Air mobile home park walks through floodwaters from Hurricane Ian through her neighborhood near Fort Myers Beach on September 29.

In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Ian, some of Florida’s hardest-hit areas are facing a new threat—a wave of flesh-eating bacterial infections that can crest in sewage-contaminated floodwaters.

In the weeks since the natural disaster, authorities in Florida’s Lee County—which surrounds Fort Myers—have seen a surge in potentially life-threatening Vibrio vulnificus infections. The bacteria are known to lurk in warm coastal waters, but fester amid pollution, particularly sewage spills.

This year, Lee County tallied 29 infections—27 identified in the aftermath of the hurricane—as well as four deaths. For comparison, Lee County recorded just five cases and one death in 2021, and zero cases in 2020. Florida overall has recorded 65 cases and 11 deaths in 2022, including those from Lee County. The state total is nearly double the totals from the past two years.

“The Florida Department of Health in Lee County is observing an abnormal increase in cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections as a result of exposure to the floodwaters and standing waters following Hurricane Ian,” a Lee County health department spokesperson told CBS News on Monday. The spokesperson went on to warn that “sewage spills, like those caused from Hurricane Ian, may increase bacteria levels,” and residents should “always be aware of the potential risks associated when exposing open wounds, cuts, or scratches on the skin to warm, brackish, or salt water.”

The good news is that the infection is not known to pass from person to person. But, those who are exposed to floodwaters risk infection through any wound or broken skin. People can also be sickened by eating raw or undercooked seafood harvested from bacteria-tainted waters.

In infected wounds, symptoms begin with redness, swelling, and pain that can quickly progress to a full-body infection, leading to gruesome blood-tinged skin lesions (called hemorrhagic bullae) and septic shock.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, V. vulnificus infections are fatal in about 40 percent of overall cases, though wound infections have a lower fatality rate of about 20 percent. Aggressive surgical treatments, including amputation, to remove infected, rotting tissue can prevent death. Those most at risk are people with compromised immune systems, and for foodborne infections, those with chronic liver disease. Besides surgery for tissue infections, treatment includes combinations of antibiotics.

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