What’s the deal with flesh-eating bacteria in Galveston Bay?

Article originally written by Galveston Bay Foundation’s Scott Jones, Director of Advocacy in August 2015.

HARC and its partner, the Galveston Bay Foundation, revisit the 2015 topic of Vibrio vulnificus, the bacterium causing illness and incidents of “flesh eating bacteria” in Galveston Bay. This updated article includes new data on the number of reported illnesses in the Houston-Galveston region from 2001-2015.

Here at the Galveston Bay Foundation we receive tweets, Facebook posts, and phone calls from time-to-time about news stories of wade fishermen or others who recreate in bay waters becoming victim to “flesh-eating” bacteria. The stories are horrific in recounting the tissue loss or death suffered by those who are stricken.

The bacteria responsible, Vibrio vulnificus, is naturally present in ocean or bay waters throughout the year. However, infections caused by this bacteria are seasonal, typically occurring from May through October when coastal waters are warmed by the summer sun. Vibrio vulnificus infection can result when the bacteria enter the human body through an open wound or through consumption of raw or undercooked shellfish such as oysters.

Vibrio vulnificus

Chart showing historic record of reported cases of Vibrio vulnificus in the seven-county area surrounding the Bay since 2001. Note: Texas Department of State Health Services data compiled by our partner, Houston Advanced Research Center, provides counts based on the residence of person affected, not the origin of infection.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, the number of illnesses annually reported inVibrio_Graphic Texas over the last 10 years is low (15 to 30 cases per year). Based on the relatively small number of reported illnesses, it would appear that the vast majority of people do not suffer ill health effects from coming in contact with the bacteria. Those who do become infected by Vibrio vulnificus often have pre-existing health issues, such as a compromised immune system, that make them susceptible to infection.

Bay waters and shellfish are not regularly monitored for Vibrio vulnificus. Therefore, we do not know concentrations of the bacteria in waters along the Texas Coast, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk of exposure. Do not expose open wounds to ocean or bay waters; immediately clean and disinfect any wound you receive while recreating in ocean or bay waters; and seek medical attention should any wound become inflamed. Properly refrigerate raw shellfish, avoid cross-contamination of food preparation surfaces with raw seafood, and if you have a pre-existing health condition, cook your shellfish before eating.

While there is no regular testing of our coastal waters for Vibrio vulnificus, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality monitors area waterways for other types of bacteria that serve as indicators of disease-causing bacteria and viruses found in our local lakes, rivers and bayous. Additionally, the Texas Beach Watch program monitors and issues advisories for Gulf and bay beaches. You can also visit the Galveston County Health District for more information on the Galveston County beach monitoring sites.

Visit the Galveston Bay Report Card at www.GalvBayGrade.org for more information about health risks associated with Galveston Bay. Remember, Galveston Bay is a great place to live, work, and play. As with so many things in our daily lives, educate yourself about your health risks and make smart choices whenever you can using available information.