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Saltwater bacteria can be life threatening


Staff writer

With warmer weather approaching, county officials want to make sure the public is aware of the possibility of contracting a type of bacteria that can sometimes be life threatening.

During a Tuesday presentation to the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners, Walter Boynton of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Chesapeake Biological Laboratory said non-cholera vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria found in saltwater that can cause infections.

The bacteria can be contracted through consumption by eating contaminated undercooked seafood, or through cuts or open wounds on a person’s body, primarily when water is warm and has a high salinity content, said deputy health officer Dan Williams.

According to the Calvert County Health Department’s website, non-cholera vibrio infections have increased in the country in recent years. In Maryland, between 2006 and 2010, 168 cases were reported, 10 of which were reported in Calvert. In 2010, four cases were reported in the county, three of which were wound infections and one by consumption, the website states. Williams said no cases of vibrio have been reported this year.

Most vibrio infections, the website states, cause gastrointestinal illness and are associated with the consumption of contaminated shellfish. The bacteria also can cause severe skin infections in an open area of skin exposed to warm saltwater.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, vibrio can cause life-threatening illnesses in “immunocompromised persons” in which the bacteria can affect the bloodstream. Infections in the bloodstream are fatal about 50 percent of the time, the website states.

Williams said every “swimming season,” the health department posts information about the bacteria on its website and also posts signs at beaches throughout the county.

Prior to entering the water, anyone with an open cut or wound should have a waterproof bandage covering the area. He said if someone gets in warm salt water and has uncovered open cuts, “clean yourself off and rinse yourself down.”

Although Boynton said there was no “alarming trend” for vibrio reports in the county, Commissioner Susan Shaw (R) said not enough information has been distributed to the public to make them aware of the potential dangers of the bacteria. Shaw said one man, 63-year-old Jackie Thompson of Dowell, died recently from complications after he contracted vibrio two years ago through a blister on his foot.

Shaw said Thompson was healthy at the time he contracted the bacteria during a fishing trip on the Chesapeake Bay. She said the vibrio affected Thompson’s entire body and caused liver failure. A week before his death, doctors found Thompson had kidney cancer, she said.

“It all stems from vibrio,” Shaw said. “You could die very quickly from it or you can have a situation like he had, where it affects organs. He spent quite a long time at Washington Hospital Center.”

Shaw said not many people know about the dangers of vibrio and “we need to be paying a lot more attention to it” and be more cautious when “conditions are right for it.”