"Flesh-eating" bacteria scares shouldn't keep you off Texas beaches

Photo by Michel Stravato

Editor's note: Correction appended.

Every summer as millions flock to Gulf Coast beaches, another seasonal cycle begins: news stories of what we should fear. Most recently in Texas, there have been a number of stories about so-called flesh-eating bacteria infecting beachgoers, Vibrio vulnificus.

V. vulnificus is a naturally occurring bacteria found in our coastal waters that can cause a serious medical emergency, especially in people with compromised immune systems. The Centers for Disease Control and Gulf States’ health departments from Texas to Florida have done a wonderful job of providing plenty of easy-to-read information about this health threat. Unfortunately, a brief search of the Internet will also produce all the chilling photos and highly sensationalized news stories one would need to justify never going back into the water.

As a coastal resident and avid angler that wades all types of coastal waters, from back bays to beach fronts, I too have been alarmed when I see reports of V. vulnificus and what it can do — as rare as such events may be. I am especially concerned because as a diabetic, I have an increased risk to consider. But as a scientist, I have carefully reviewed all the information I can find and I have come to the conclusion that my chance of infection is extraordinarily low — in fact, with a few commonsense precautions, the risk is almost nonexistent.

There are about 100 cases of V. vulnificus reported to the CDC each year, and of those, some 20 to 25 occur in Texas. When you consider the hundreds of thousands of Texans and millions of Gulf Coast residents splashing, swimming and wading coastal waters each year, that makes your chance of infection very unlikely. About twice as many Texans are killed by bee stings and about five times as many by hitting deer on the road.

The bacterium occurs in saltwater, and while it is widespread, ideal conditions for it are low salinity and warm temperatures. It’s most often associated with oysters — infections may come from eating raw oysters or through a cut or skin abrasion when wading around oyster reefs or any shallow back bay where water circulation is reduced. Most infections occur during the summer, when water is warmest and more or less stagnant. That’s also a time of year when many individuals are fishing and not wearing waders because the water is warm.

So, how do I reduce my risk? When I wade the back bays, I never go barefoot and always wear shoes with solid toes. It helps keep the shell and mud out, making walking easier, and greatly reduces the chance of a cut or abrasion. I wear gloves when I’m fishing or picking up specimens for research.

If I do get a cut, I clean it right away with soap and water and keep an eye on it for signs of infection, and I wear waders or some other type of protection in the water the next time I go out. I don’t eat raw oysters very often, but when I do it is only from a restaurant that identifies where they were harvested.

None of these precautions can absolutely protect you from infection, but they will help reduce already low odds of dealing with V. vulnificus.

I do take the time and effort to be informed of my surroundings, as anyone should. I drive a little more cautiously at night in the Texas Hill Country to avoid the deer. I try not to anger even a single bee, and I am careful about where I put my feet when wade fishing.

However, I will not abandon my beloved Texas coast. It is both my job and playground, and I intend to be on it, in it and around it for a long time to come. And I will not let my life be dictated by uninformed risk. No one should. Sensationalized news about health threats like V. vulnificus undermine rational thought and distort perspective, but there is plenty of good information out there to make your own decision about risk.

I hope to see you on the beach.

Correction: An earlier version of this column conflated the number of cases associated with Vibrio vulnificus with the number of deaths. The CDC reports approximately 100 cases from the bacteria each year in the United States.

Larry McKinney

Executive director, Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi

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