Since August, four people who were fishing in the Potomac River or handled equipment or fish that had been in the water have been treated at Mary Washington Healthcare facilities for blood or skin infections.
Three patients had open wounds or got a cut while on the water, said Lisa Henry, MWH’s marketing director. The fourth was in contact with equipment or fish from the river, she said. Three of the four people were hospitalized.
The illnesses were caused by vibrio bacteria, typically found in warm, marine environments such as saltwater, said Dr. Brooke Rossheim, director of the Rappahannock Area Health District. Whenever a patient tests positive for vibrio, the case is reported to the state.
The Potomac and Rappahannock rivers are natural habitats for the bacteria, Rossheim said, along with the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.
MWH has seen patients with vibrio illnesses the past few years in late summer, when water temperatures rise and the bacteria flourish, Henry said. There are about a dozen types of vibrio species that can make humans sick with a condition called vibriosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Most people become infected by eating raw or under-cooked shellfish, particularly oysters, states the CDC.
About 52,000 of the 80,000 vibriosis cases reported in the United States each year come from contaminated food, according to the CDC. Most people with that strain of bacteria recover within three days, with no lasting problems.
However, cases of vibrio vulnificus—the type of infection seen locally—can get seriously ill and need intensive care or limb amputation, according to the CDC. About 1 in 5 patients will die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill.
“They are serious infections that should be taken seriously and treated at the earliest sign of concern,” Henry said.
Vibrio bacteria can cause watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills. Symptoms occur within 24 hours of exposure and last about three days. The bacteria also can cause a skin infection when an open wound is exposed to salt or brackish water, according to the CDC.
People who experience a cut while in the water or handing fish or equipment should wash the wounds thoroughly with soap and water and consult a medical provider if signs of an infection develop, Henry said.
Also, those with cuts and scrapes are encouraged to stay out of the water or to cover their wounds with waterproof bandages, the CDC states. More information is available at cdc.gov/vibrio.