Flesh-eating bacteria focus of talk

Bernie Fowler and Dr. Rita R. Colwell
Former State Senator Bernie Fowler, left, speaks with Dr. Rita R. Colwell, far right, following her presentation on Vibrio at Calvert Marine Museum Friday, May 19.

Solomons, MD - By now everyone living near the water in Southern Maryland has seen the disturbing picture of a person’s leg ravaged by a flesh-eating bacteria. The bacteria, known scientifically as Vibrio vulnificus, can be found in many locations, including the Chesapeake Bay and several of its tributaries. In early September 2016 a man cleaning crab pots at an Ocean City condominium cut himself, came in contact with brackish water and died four days later. The man’s wife told USA Today that for some reason—perhaps economic—information about Vibrio vulnificus is lacking.

On Friday, May 19, Southern Maryland residents got to hear a scientist’s perspective of the deadly bacteria. Calvert Marine Museum (CMM) hosted Dr. Rita R. Colwell, an environmental microbiologist who is a Vibrio expert.

The bacteria causes an infection that an individual can acquire by consuming raw or undercooked shellfish or through an open wound when swimming or wading into water. Bodies of water that are brackish and contain high salinity can become infected with the bacteria. “Temperature and salinity are two major contributing factors,” said Colwell. “This bacteria is serious and you need to treat it properly.”

Colwell stated that “infections are relatively rare” and less than 100 cases occur annually in the United States. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “estimates that 12 to 30 million Americans have risk factors for Vibrio vulnificus infection.” The risk factors include liver disease, diabetes, cancer and HIV infection. The months when Vibrio vulnificus is likely to occur are May through October. The fatality rate is 50 to 60 percent and the age group most impacted is between 40 and 59. Colwell warned that “Vibrio strains around the U.S. are on the rise.”

Receiving antibiotic treatment within 24 hours of contracting Vibrio betters an individual’s chances of recovery. “Don’t play Russian Roulette,” said Colwell, who told the audience that anyone who develops a wound with an unusual redness, swelling or drainage, should seek medical help immediately.

While she acknowledged many people who love to eat raw oysters will do so despite the risk of contracting Vibrio vulnificus, she indicated that cooking the bivalves before consumption is the best way to lower the risk. Avoiding contact with salty, brackish waters, especially with any cuts or other wounds is also a preventative step, although bandaging the wound can lower the risk.

During the ensuing question and answer period, some audience members indicated that many physicians either misdiagnose Vibrio or simply don’t know how to treat it. One man in the audience said when he contracted Vibrio “the doctor did not recognize it” which led to months of recovery and rehabilitation.

“You do not hear about the preventiveness,” said Dr. John Roache, a retired St. Mary’s County physician. Roache noted that many St. Mary’s County watermen are extremely cautious about bacteria lurking in the waters where they work year ‘round. The watermen wear heavy rubber gloves, which are washed, dried and reused and also apply a “bleach water spray.”

Colwell, who is a professor at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University, has been active in research projects for over 50 years. She noted that research related to Vibrio is nearly 60 years old and really gained momentum in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea regions of Europe. She indicated the study of the bacteria and its findings is likely science’s first evidence of climate change.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information on Vibrio at

Contact Marty Madden at

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