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What you need to know about the flesh-eating bacteria in NJ

fresh oysters plate

Vibrio vulnificus — better known to us as the “flesh-eating” bacteria — is becoming more  common in northern waters, where surface temperatures are rising due to climate change, scientists say.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 80,000 people contract these infections each year, 52,000 from contaminated seafood. While most infections subside within a few days, every year there are about 500 people hospitalized and 100 die, usually within a few days of being infected.

David Cennimo, infectious disease expert and assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said the flesh-eating bacteria is commonly found in sea water, brackish water and wetlands.

It’s been found in Delaware Bay and even in New Jersey waters. That is attributed to ocean temperatures warming the bay temperatures.

In New Jersey in July 2018, a 61-year-old Millville man contracted the flesh-eating bacteria while crabbing in Maurice River. Angel Perez noticed a rash, his legs began to swell and lesions appeared on his skin. Perez lost the lower portions of both his arms and legs but after a long hospital stay and numerous surgeries, he survived.

Cennimo said high levels of the flesh-eating bacteria can infect people if they go into the water with an open wound. But those high levels can also be concentrated in shellfish that people eat.

The most common form of the infection is food poisoning, such as eating a bad clam or oyster. Cennimo said if someone has food poisoning, they usually suffer from diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramping. Most get over it in a few days. But when vibrio infects the soft tissue, it looks like a severe skin infection. The area may be inflamed and red with blood blisters or a severe bruise. If that’s the case, Cennimo said to seek emergency medical help immediately because the infection can spread over the course of hours.

A person is especially at risk if their immune system is compromised by conditions such as liver disease, cancer, diabetes or HIV. The cause of death from these infections is sepsis.

There are preventive measures to take to avoid developing the flesh-eating bacteria infection. A person with an open wound should avoid brackish or salt water. Those with rare diseases that can compromise the immune system should also avoid the water and eating raw shellfish.

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