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Flesh-Eating Bacteria


Vibrio vulnificus

Vibrio vulnificus is a free living marine bacteria found in warm waters. It is a major cause of necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease) in Hong Kong. V. vulnificus causes infection by ingestion (seafood) or through open wounds when swimming or wading in infected waters or via puncture wounds from the spines of fish such as tilapia. It prefers warm seawater or brackish (mixed fresh- and seawater) and occurs worldwide in warm salt water and can be present in infected shellfish. In people with compromised immune systems, V. vulnificus is more likely to spread into the blood stream, when it can cause severe symptoms including blistering skin lesions, septic shock, and even death . Locally the fatality rate is roughly 30%. Official information on Vibrio vulnificus from the Centre for Helath Protection (CHP) is available from this press release.

2013 saw 14 cases of V.vulnificus infections, resulting in 7 amputations and 3 fatalities. 12 of the 14 cases had underlying health issues or chronic diseases or medical conditions. Here is a quick graph of infections since 2005 (data gap from 2006-2007):

Graph of V vulnificus infections over time
V. vulnifius infections reported by the CHP since 2005 grouped by season.

According to a spokesman for the  Centre Health Protection (CHP), necrotising fasciitis is a serious bacterial infection which can destroy tissue and cause death within 12 to 24 hours after infection. The CHP reminds people to adopt the following preventive measures:

* Avoid foot/leg contact with dirty water when visiting a wet market;
* Avoid exposure of open wounds or broken skin to seawater or salty water;
* Wounds should be thoroughly cleaned and properly covered; and
* Wear thick rubber gloves when handling raw shellfish.

Patients should seek medical advice promptly if they develop symptoms and signs of infection such as increasing redness, pain and swelling.

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