One dies, three other Louisianans sickened after swimming in Gulf

Published: Jul. 11, 2014 at 1:46 PM CDT|Updated: May. 20, 2015 at 7:41 PM CDT
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EDITOR'S NOTE 5/20/15: This story from July 9, 2013, is seeing a resurgence on social media. To clarify, this is not recent information.

Grand Isle, La. - The death of one person and the physical battle three others face because of flesh-eating bacteria have some people reconsidering their holiday weekend plans to swim in the salt and brackish waters of south Louisiana.

People frolicked in the surf at Grand Isle Tuesday, oblivious to an annual threat that's cropped up this year with a vengeance.

"I thought about it, but I didn't know where it was," said Marcia Baldwin of Baton Rouge.

The coastal waters of Louisiana are prime habitat for a flesh-eating bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus, but many haven't heard.  It is all around us in the salty waters of south Louisiana.

"In the winter it's rare, but in the summer it's much more active in the water," said Raoult Ratard, MD with the Department of Health and Hospitals.

The bacteria is especially dangerous for those with immune disorders and the elderly.  It can often eat the flesh of those who come in contact with the bacteria, especially if they have open wounds.

"That infection becomes a serious disease if they have problems with their immune systems," said Dr Ratard.

Four people in Louisiana have been affected so far, and one has died.

Marcia Baldwin says she's not at high risk but she's concerned about small cuts on her leg, which came in contact with Gulf water, saying, "When I fell and cut my leg, I thought about it, I'll clean it up good when I get home."

The Department of Health and Hospitals conducts tests at 25 state beaches, and has issued advisories at 14 of them, but none has to do with the flesh eating bacteria.'

Those 14 beaches have been closed for other reasons, but Vibrio, can strike anywhere along the coast, with cases so far, coming from across the state, including New Orleans, Thibodaux, Baton Rouge, and Lake Charles.

But health officials say three of the four cases reported in the state so far, involve people over 70. The elderly, and those with immune disorders, or those taking certain medications need to be careful.

"Vibrio won't harm someone in good health, but it might give them a bad infection," said Ratard.

Most of those swimming on Grand Isle Tuesday, considered themselves at low risk.

"Everyone had a blast," said McHugh.

And now that the warning is out, many say they'll be more careful.

"Now I will especially with the little ones," said Hebert, "I worry about them more than anything, and will do whatever I need to keep them safe."

State health officials say the risk is real, although worse for some than for others.

Treatment of a Vibrio-infected wound needs to be quick. It includes antibiotics and possibly surgery. The prognosis is directly linked to the speed and accuracy of diagnosis and treatment.

The best advice is to be careful, and don't swim in coastal waters if you have open wounds or cuts right now - especially if you're older or at high risk.