Vibrio Vulnificus, Flesh-Eating or Not? St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

The Indian River Lagoon (Photo by Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, 2013.)
The Central Indian River Lagoon. (Photo by Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch and Ed Lippisch, 2013.)

Although the Martin County Health Department reports that Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria found in the waters of the Indian River Lagoon, is not truly a “flesh-eating bacteria,” in rare circumstances it  can cause horrific blisters, limb amputations, and even death.

The naturally occurring  bacteria is not well understood, but a study published in The Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology in 2004 regarding a study in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey states:

“V. vulnificus population dynamics are strongly correlated to water temperature and although the general trend is for V. vulnificus abundance to be inversely correlated with salinity, this relationship depends on salinity levels. Irrespective of temperature, high abundances of V. vulnificus are observed at 5 to 10 ppt, which thus appears to be the optimal salinity regime for their survival…”

This “ideal salinity level” is particularly noteworthy as during the rainy summer months salinities in the Indian River Lagoon lessen, due to polluted freshwater run-off and canal discharges. This situation is exacerbated in the southern lagoon if there are releases from Lake Okeechobee, as there were during the “Lost Summer” of 2013.

People are exposed to the bacteria through an open wound or through ingesting raw seafood, especially infected oysters. Cases occur though out the US, but according to the Center for Disease Control, Florida, Texas, and Maryland report the highest number of cases annually.

Contracting an infection from “vibrio” is extremely rare, and in fact, most people exposed to the bacteria may show no signs of infection at all. Others might experience mild effects such as diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. However, for those who have weak immune systems, chronic liver disease, or other serious health problems, the vibrio can strike very quickly and be fatal.

In 2013, Florida Today reported that Florida averages 50 cases, 45 hospitalizations and 16 deaths annually, most from the Gulf Coast region, according to the Florida Department of Health. They also report  that Brevard County, along the IRL, where Melbourne is located, has had 32 cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections since 1993.

Within the past year, two very serious, but non-fatal cases were reported in Melbourne, in Brevard County; and one fatal incident was reported in Ormand Beach, Volusia County, along the Halifax River, which is connected to the northern Indian River Lagoon, north of Ponce Inlet. Ironically, these central and northern IRL areas are the same locations where there have been high dolphin and manatee mortalities as expressed in NOAA’s 2013 “Unusual Mortality Events,” (UME).

As far as the southern lagoon, it was recently reported in Scripps Newspapers that two FAU/Harbor Branch scientists had found Vibrio vulnificus here as well.

This is unsettling, but to be expected, as this bacteria was probably here when I was 5 years old growing up in Stuart, every summer, full of scrapes and cuts swimming around in the warm waters of the lagoon. We must keep our perspective. Thousands of people have contact with Florida’s waters and the Indian River Lagoon and yet few become sick.

Martin County Health Department Director,  Klaretta Peck, stated in a press release to Martin County elected officials this year:”

“I am writing today to share some information with you regarding Vibrio vulnificus. As you may have heard, some news media outlets have taken a sensationalistic approach to this issue, going as far as reporting unconfirmed cases, which can cause unnecessary alarm to the public. There are no recent cases of Vibrio Vulnificus in Martin County and though vibrio can cause blisters and lesions, is it not a “flesh eating bacteria” and should not be referred to as such.”

This is reassuring, nonetheless, at the height of summer,  a Sewall’s Point mother called me, as I am a town commissioner.  She was worried by what she had read in the papers  and asked me if I thought it was alright to take her three-year old twins swimming at the Sandbar.

“Of course, ” I replied, then  I hesitated:

“Do they have any open scratches?…”


Vibrio vulnificus information: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: (

American Society for Microbiology: AEM Journal: “Effects of Temperature and Salinity on Vibrio vulnificus Population Dynamics as Assessed by Quantitative PCR”
Mark A. Randa, Martin F. Polz, and Eelin Lim!po=85.4167)

6 thoughts on “Vibrio Vulnificus, Flesh-Eating or Not? St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. Jacqui I have Charcot Marie Tooth disease ‘ Inherited Neuropathy ‘ a genetic disorder that affects my entire body but more significantly my legs and feet, for years doctors would look at my feet and ask ‘ do you have diabetes?’ and when I would say no they would say ‘ you have the worse case of neuropathy I have ever seen!’ and when I say that people who know what that is look confused because most people don’t understand how someone can see neuropathy because most people with diabetes feel it and not until they have complications from it will they know they have it. With CMT I was born with it so the neuropathy has been building for 58 years now , so my feet are purple most of the time and cold , that being said what has this to do with your article? Well you see like someone with diabetes I don’t have feeling in my feet and legs or much in my arms or hands for that matter, and the circulation, I have lympedema as well from the spine injury 22 years ago in my trunk and arms and and at times in my legs. I don’t have to have an open cut to get an infection all I have to do is walk barefoot in dirty water and absorb it through my skin to get sick, this has happened before, any microscopic place in our skin bacteria is microscopic , so when the health advisories go out and say the ‘ elderly’ or the very ill or children , I laugh, Until I got the first dangerous infection from walking barefoot in California years ago and had to be hospitalized and on IV antibiotics for 3 days and have a pic line because my veins collapsed I didn’t know I fit into these categories . When I first moved to Florida in 2000 I met a man who loved to fish in the Indian River Lagoon, he waded into it all of the time , and he had type 2 diabetes, he also had a horrible strange red infection on his skin when I met him on his legs and abdomen , he said he had gotten it from wading in the river. Said he got it every time he went fishing. I hadn’t thought of that until last year when I got active in the River Warriors and started educating myself about the lagoon and the history of what has been going on with the rivers and learned about the big discharge in 1998 and the big fish die off then and the discharges since then and I wonder about that man and wonder what happened to him . I use to go kayaking in the river, I haven’t been in a long time , have had 2 shoulder surgeries in the last year , but I wouldn’t be out in it either way because of my health challenges 🙂 because of the possible problems it could cause me .

  2. I agree that we don’t want to sensationalize the danger, but … “no harm to the public” is the same tired response that the nuclear power cartels refrain all the time when they know that there is an increase of cancer and leukemia all around nuclear plants. I think that the Center for Disease Control and/or some other medical research agency should be called in to take a good hard look at the facts about this bacteria, and do something about it to better control the risk and better understand the bacteria too. Also, I do believe the public has a right to be informed on the topic. A few months ago I came down with cellulitis and was terrified it might be the flesh-eating bacteria…(it wasn’t), but I won’t even let my dog swim in the water anymore.

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