LEE COUNTY, Fla. — A new study from researchers at the University of Florida has revealed an alarming amount of flesh-eating bacteria found in parts of the Gulf after Hurricane Ian.
The curiosity started from existing research in Virginia, which tested for Vibrio, the bacteria.
"Let’s just see what waters in an extreme event does to the water systems in Florida," said Antar Jutla, an associate professor of environmental engineering at UF.
Alongside other researchers, they set sail in October 2022 to look for the bacteria days after Ian.
They took water and oyster samples from Clam Key, Cutthroat Clams and White Booth Seafood — all in Lee County.
Jutla said they were not expecting any big numbers.
"Especially after the hurricane has passed, we were like things are getting normal," he said. "Maybe things got flushed more because there is more freshwater that got into the bay."
The results started to come back and he said they were surprised.
"Almost every sample had a positive hit for either Vibrio vulnificus or parahaemolyticus," Jutla explained.
He says they were only expecting one or two samples to come back positive.
They're doing a long-term analysis, but the current results were still alarming because of the impact it physically had on people in Lee County.
"With Hurricane Ian, what we found was tremendous uptick in infections in southwest Florida," said Dr. Norman Beatty, an associate professor of medicine at UF, specializing in infectious diseases and global medicine. "Some had to have amputations of their extremities and some who even lost their life."
According to the Florida Department of Health, 28 people got infected with the bacteria in Lee County in 2022, citing an uptick from Hurricane Ian. Of the 28, eight people died.
Beatty wants to emphasize this is rare, but the CDC says it is also underreported.
The CDC says while a little more than half of the reported cases come from eating seafood, mainly raw oysters, the professors say these cases are different.
"We see that these individuals were either wading through storm surge water or actively in the water during the storm," Beatty explained. "Most of the people infected actually developed the concerning wound infections that we see with Vibrio vulnificus."
Beatty says if the person had a cut or scrape, the flesh-eating bacteria enters the body.
"The cases are increasing pretty rapidly over the last 20 years," Jutla said. "We are still trying to answer more questions that our initial results basically posed us."
But why are we seeing more infections? Jutla says they have an idea, and believes part of it comes back to climate change.
"We believe that terrestrial flows of the water basically lower the salinities, increased nutrients and since we already had warm waters during that time frame, that probably led to these pathogens," Jutla explained.
With more infections, and a higher risk of it, Fox 4 asked if the water is safe. The professors say it's not an easy answer.
"It’s less likely that Vibrio species are circulating on our recreational beaches," Beatty said.
The CDC says the bacteria is found in both salt and brackish water — a mix of fresh and salt. Keep in mind — most bodies of water have bacteria in them.
"If I had a wound infection or if I had a minor scrape on my leg, I would probably stay away from the coastal water," Jutla said.
With this study, the professors say it's going to be able to help them develop an early warning detection system by yielding a larger source of information for public health during climate change.
So our water if safe, but Beatty says if you do go in the water and you have an open wound, Beatty said clean it after and protect it.