Flesh-eating bacteria detected in seaweed on Florida beaches

Aerial view of Key Biscayne National Park.

  • Clusters of cloudy brown algae are showing up off Miami Beach and Key Biscayne in Florida.
  • A new study says the clusters are magnets for a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus.
  • Vibrio can cause flesh-eating infections that, in rare cases, can be fatal or require amputations.

Giant clumps of seaweed are washing up on Florida beaches and may contain dangerous “flesh-eating” bacteria, researchers warn.

This is the latest concern to arise from the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, an ominous mass of murky brown algae that has been flourishing in the Atlantic Ocean since 2018. Scientists believe it is largely due to human activity, InfoAmazonia reported, with deforestation and intensive soybean. agriculture in the Brazilian Amazon sending nitrogen and phosphorus into the ocean.

While many types of seaweed are beneficial to human health and the ecosystem, this 5,000-mile-wide bloom is causing power outages and injuring fish. It also emits hydrogen sulfide, which has been linked to heart infections and pregnancy complications in people living in coastal regions. not to mention it makes the beaches smell like rotten eggs.

Now, researchers are sharing another reason for beachgoers to steer clear of clumps of seaweed washing up on Miami Beach and Key Biscayne: They’re fertile ground for a species of bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus, which can cause “flesh-eating” infections. “Life threatening.

“I don’t think at this point anyone has really considered these microbes and their ability to cause infection,” Tracy Mincer, an assistant professor of biology at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), said in a news item published by FAU. Mincer co-authored the new study in the journal Water Research. “We really want to make the public aware of these associated risks,” Mincer told FAU.

What is Vibrio?

Vibrio vulnificus is a type of bacteria that thrives in warm water. According to Miner’s team at FAU, Vibrio “are the leading cause of death in humans in the marine environment.”

When ingested, for example by eating contaminated shellfish, Vibrio can cause watery diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps, usually within 24 hours.

Vibrio can also enter the bloodstream through a break in the skin, such as a cut or bite. In some rare cases, that can cause a “flesh-eating” infection called necrotizing fasciitis, which develops rapidly and can be fatal within days.

Standard treatment for necrotizing fasciitis begins with intravenous antibiotics, to reduce infection and prevent complications such as organ failure and sepsis. If the infection progresses, the next step is surgery to remove the infection, which may include amputation of the infected limbs.

Symptoms of Vibrio infection

According to the CDC, early symptoms of a Vibrio infection include:

  • Watery diarrhea and stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Fever and chills
  • Blistered skin, which may present as blackheads
  • Low blood pressure
  • Pain, swelling, or warmth around an infected wound

How to avoid flesh-eating bacteria on the beach

Vibrio infections are rare. Florida has recorded 437 cases since 2013 and 101 deaths, according to the Florida Department of Health.

To avoid a Vibrio infection, first make sure to stay away from clumps of seaweed on the beach.

Keep any open wounds, including new piercings or tattoos, covered with a waterproof bandage. It is particularly important to prevent seawater or undercooked fish juices from getting into an open cut, including inadvertent splashes from walking near water.

If salt water or raw fish juices get on a wound, wash it immediately with soap and water. And if you start to experience the symptoms of a Vibrio infection, seek medical attention.