USM marine microbiologist weighs in on vibrio vulnificus

USM marine microbiologist weighs in on vibrio vulnificus

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - Over the years, the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Lab has learned a lot about the bacteria that causes both food borne and wound related illnesses.

Officials confirm they are seeing the number of that bacteria known as vibrio vulnificus rise as the waters warm.

"Vibrio vulnificus kills more people than any other bacterium known. But they say the odds of you contracting vulnificus disease even, if you're at risk, is one in 50,000. So even the people at risk don't always get vibrio vulnificus,"said Dr. Jay Grimes who is the Professor of Marine Microbiology at USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab. "Vibrio is a bacterium and there are about, as of six months ago, 100 species. But for years there were just less than 10 species of vibrio. Fortunately only about 12 of the vibrio species can cause disease in humans."

Vibrio can cause problems in both humans and fish.

Dr. Grimes says vibrio gives researchers at the Gulf Coast Research Lab's aquaculture facility problems with several fish, including red snapper and speckled trout.

"From time to time we'll get a crash of our aquaculture tanks and everything just dies, and it turns out to be vibrio vulnificus; the clinical type. And there's two types the clinical type and the environmental type," said Dr. Grimes. "There have been experiments where you inject just one mouse with vibrio vulnificus, but you don't try to protect the mouse and that mouse will die in less than 24 hours. If you overload that mouse with iron, that mouse won't die."

Dr. Grimes says estrogen happens to protect against vibrio vulnificus.

"Females don't get the flesh eating disease very often. Males do because males don't have estrogen. And while human subjects haven't been used to research, that's been proven in animals. So if you load a male white mouse or something with estrogen, they're not going to get vulnificus," Grimes said.

According to the FDA, about 96 deaths in the U.S. are caused by vibrio vulnificus each year. The FDA also states that 90 percent of all vibrio vulnificus illnesses in the U.S. result from the consumption of raw Gulf Coast oysters.

Dr. Grimes says vibrio vulnificus has a fatality rate of 50 percent, which is the highest rate of any bacterium known.

Here's what the public needs to know about the bacteria:

  • Vibrio vulnificus numbers go does down when salinity goes up
  • Rain lowers salinity meaning vibrio vulnificus numbers rise
  • Numbers go up as water gets warmer
  • Estrogen protects against vibrio, which is why more men get it than women.

Those at risk: 

  • People who are immune compromised
  • HIV positive
  • Diabetic
  • Elderly

Should beach goers get cut while in the water, Dr. Grimes recommends cleaning wounds with hydrogen peroxide, then applying betadyne.

Copyright 2016 WLOX. All rights reserved.