Deadly Vibrio Vulnificus Bacteria Kills Florida Swimmer: Are You in Danger?

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Nine people have been infected by the bacteria in Florida this year, and three have died. (Photo: Getty Images) 

A 26-year-old healthy man has died after contracting a rare, deadly bacterial infection while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa, Fla.

Cason Yeager died last week after being infected with the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, just two days after he went swimming in the Gulf, his mother, Karen Yeager Mercer, told Florida’s WTSP.

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Cason Yeager, the Florida man whose life was claimed by the deadly Vibrio vulnificus found in the warm waters off the Gulf Coast. (Photo: Karen Yeager Mercer)

“This has been a nightmare for me, to say the least, and nobody should have to go through this,” she said, adding that people should be aware that the bacteria can infect healthy people.

Cason and a group of friends were swimming in waist-deep water about 2 miles south of Florida’s Pine Island Beach in Hernando County (about an hour south of Tampa) when his mother believes he contracted the bacteria. He died two days later, on June 16. 

“I’m not telling anyone don’t go into the water, just do your due diligence and make sure that you’re not going to harm yourself,” she said.

The state of Florida issued a warning earlier this month about Vibrio vulnificus, which lives in warm seawater. It can be transmitted to people through cuts or scrapes or by eating undercooked or raw shellfish such as oysters, clams, or crabs.

Nine people have been infected by the bacteria in Florida this year, and three have died — Yeager, another person from eating raw seafood, and another from “multiple exposures” to the bacteria. (The bacteria killed at least seven people in Florida last year, but the state says that number is underreported.)

Related: Florida Beachgoers Warned About Deadly Bacteria — That’s Also Found in Raw Shellfish

While Vibrio vulnificus can be contracted by wading in bacteria-infected water with an open wound, ingesting raw seafood is by far the biggest culprit, infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, tells Yahoo Health.

Most people who contract this bacteria will experience vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, but it can also infect the bloodstream, causing fever, chills, decreased blood pressure, and blistering skin lesions.

This bacteria also has a high mortality rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vibrio vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal 50 percent of the time.

Before you panic, know this: Most people who died from Vibrio vulnificus had liver disease or had compromised immune systems. WTSP reports that Cason Yeager had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder 10 years ago — but his mother says he had not had a problem since and was healthy at the time he became infected with the bacteria. 

Vibrio vulnificus is most common in warm waters in Gulf states, Adalja says, but he points out that 100 percent of Chesapeake Bay oysters have Vibrio vulnificus in them. “It’s not uncommon; just not everybody who comes into contact with it gets infected,” he says.

According to Adalja, some people may be genetically predisposed to infection, adding, “The more raw shellfish you eat, the more likely you are to get Vibrio vulnificus.”

Related: How to Protect Yourself Against the Deadly CRE Superbug

Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, tells Yahoo Health that you should be wary of eating raw oysters in general. “It’s considered to be a potential high risk, whether you’re immunocompromised or not,” he said.

However, he says, there is one way you can make sure your raw shellfish is safe: Look for foods that undergo high-pressure processing. This process inactivates harmful microbes that could be in your shellfish, including Vibrio vulnificus, but doesn’t kill the oysters. “You still have a fresh flavor, but they’re pasteurized,” Doyle says, noting that more restaurants are buying these types of oysters.  

If you experience symptoms of Vibrio vulnificus infection after eating oysters or raw shellfish, call your doctor immediately. “This can quickly spread systemically,” says Adalja. “Getting antibiotics quickly is crucial.”

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