MISSISSIPPI SOUND (WLOX) - Coastal waters have been making headlines in recent weeks, and there have been some tragic outcomes that seem to occur earlier every year. What's causing these rare, but life threatening, cases of flesh eating disease?
The cause is a naturally occurring bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus. We have seen some tragic results in recent weeks.
Two people on the Coast lost their legs to flesh eating disease, and nearly lost their lives. In both cases, it's believed the bacteria from the Mississippi Sound entered their bloodstream through skin lesions.
Jennifer McLeland, 25, dipped her feet into the Mississippi Sound for less than 30 seconds. Less than 48 hours later, her leg was amputated in order to save her life. Gregory Brou, Sr. had his leg amputated after water splashed on it during a fishing trip. Both were infected by the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria from the Mississippi Sound in April.
McLeland says it has been extremely difficult for her, but she tries to focus on the positive.
"I'm thankful to be alive, and I take it day by day," said McLeland.
Thankful, because according to the CDC, about 50 percent of people who develop flesh eating disease as a result of Vibrio don't survive.
Part of the reason McLeland shared her heartbreaking story with us last month was to help make more people aware of the risks. She'd like to see more done to warn the public.
"I think they should have signs out at the beach to warn people they may not want to get into the water," she said.
That's what has some people confused, because in recent weeks, a section of the Mississippi Sound off Biloxi's beach was closed due to a sewage main break. That has nothing to do with the naturally occurring bacteria in the water that infected McLeland. They are entirely separate issues.
Dr. Jay Grimes is a professor of marine microbiology at USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab. His lab has a contract with the DMR to test the waters, but only for certain bacteria.
"What's done is we test the fecal bacteria that's associated with human and animal waste," said Grimes.
Grimes is also an internationally known Vibrio expert. A lot of the work in his lab involves the wide array of Vibrio bacteria, including vulnifucus. He has petri dish samples with Vibrio and other bacteria samples that help researchers learn more about them. He picks up one of the dishes and points out which samples are vulnificus.
"This is Vibrio vulnificus, and these are other types of Vibrios. This all came out of the water in the Mississippi Sound," said Grimes.
You can find vulnificus on any given day in the Gulf, especially during warm weather, but is it feasible to put up signs on the beaches and bayous warning people, especially those who are immune compromised, about the risks of Vibrio Vulnificus?
"It's certainly feasible. It probably would help, but most immune compromised people know not to go in the water. Then again, to play it safe, if those signs were up, they would know for sure," Grimes said.
McLeland and her husband did not know the risks. Grimes says it's critical for people to know, especially those who are immune compromised.
"If you are immune compromised, you should stay out of the water," said Grimes.
He also recommends against eating raw oysters, which are known to harbor vulnificus. He says once they are cooked, they are perfectly safe, but it's not just here on our Mississippi Coast where vulnificus thrives. Grimes says Vibrio vulnificus is present in warm, salty and brackish waters everywhere.
"There's nothing wrong with our water. These guys have been out there for millions of years," Grimes explains.
They do have the ability to wreak havoc if they get into a person's blood stream, especially someone who is immune compromised.
"Unfortunately, they have the enzymes necessary that they can get into your body and digest your muscles, your subcutaneous tissue, and just burrow down and cause necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh eating disease," said Grimes.
When the water is at its warmest, they pose the greatest risk. That's because they thrive in warm water, and warm weather brings more people into contact with the water and increases their chances of encountering the organism. Over 85 percent of cases occur between April and October.
While April is relatively early for these types of cases, Grimes isn't surprised by it.
"You have a couple of things going on here. You have rainfall, which can put more nutrients in the water, and no matter what you want to say causes climate change, climate change is happening and warmer waters do exist," said Grimes.
Here on the Coast, the waters are warmer than other parts of the country. That's one reason we see more cases in Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas than other states.
While the number of cases is growing, according to the CDC, Vibrio illnesses are still considered exceedingly rare, and most healthy people are not considered to be at great risk. Grimes says the most important thing for people to know is to act quickly if they have any sign of skin infection.
"If you start getting redness at the site of a lesion or even at an area where you don't know you have a lesion, and it starts to swell, or you get blisters at the site or other symptoms, get to the ER immediately," Grimes said.
Both patients whose stories we covered are still recovering. McLeland has gone home and is in rehab. According to Brou's son, more than a month after his amputation, he's still recovering at Singing River Hospital.