The Florida Department of Health in Monroe County (DOH) has a message for you: there is no flesh-eating bacteria lurking out there in the warm waters of the Florida Keys.
However, there is a slight risk of another bacterial infection that has been confused with the dreaded Necrotizing fasciitis (NF), which destroys the tissue that makes up the skin and muscle by releasing toxins (virulence factors), which include streptococcal pyrogenic exotoxins.
It's called Vibrio Vulnificus (VV), and it's present in warm coastal waters throughout the world during the hottest times of the year - including the Keys. People with liver disease, diabetes, or weakened immune systems are at particular risk of caching VV, by eating raw or undercooked shellfish, or swimming in warm salt or brackish water with open sores.
The recent death of a Sarasota resident, and a segment on Good Morning America, which apparently confused the two infections, prompted the Monroe County Tourist Development Council to issue a press release setting the record straight. The DOH put out its own release last month warning of the risks of VV, something they do every year.
Health Department spokesman Chris Tittel said his office has been fielding a number of calls lately from concerned locals and tourists alike worried about catching the NF bug that took the leg of the premier of Quebec in 1994, killed a Florida woman in 2012, and this year afflicted comedian Don Rickles, forcing him to now walk with a cane.
With VV illness usually begins within one to three days of exposure, but up to a week later for a small percentage of cases. Symptoms include fever, swelling and redness of skin on arms or legs, with blood-tinged blisters, low blood pressure and shock. Most cases can be treated with antibiotics
There have been no infections so far this year in Monroe County, and just one last year. However, that person died.
Statewide, 11 people have been infected, two of them fatally, so far this year, according to DOH data. Last year, there were 41 cases, and 11 deaths in Florida.
"We're trending kind of low actually," DOH press secretary Sheri Hutchinson said earlier this week.
According to Tittel, avoiding VV isn't hard.
"Prevention is key to good health," he said. "In much the same way that we wear sunscreen to prevent against the harmful rays of the sun, anyone who's particularly concerned about vibrio can prevent infection by following these simple guidelines."
• Avoid eating raw oysters or other raw shellfish.
• Cook shellfish thoroughly.
• Avoid cross-contamination of cooked seafood and other foods with raw seafood and juices from raw seafood.
• Avoid exposure of open wounds or broken skin to warm salt or brackish water, or to raw shellfish harvested from such waters.
• Wear protective clothing (e.g., gloves) when handling raw shellfish.