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Vibrio vulnificus and other risks outdoors

July 9, 2019

On any given day, hundreds — maybe thousands — of people fish, sail, and surf the waters of the local bays. Vibrio vulnificus is endemic to these waters. It is one of the bacteria that can cause necrotizing fasciitis when it infects the skin. It is not the only one that does that, though perhaps the one most known for that. Just about every year, a couple of cases are reported along the Texas coast. Given that all the mentioned activities are prone to scrapes and bruises and cuts, it is almost surprising that we see so few.

If you work or play near these waters, watch out for painful swellings. If you’re suspicious, get medical attention quickly. Don’t dally. The infection is amazingly virulent once planted.

Vibrio is sensitive to temperature. While common in the gulf coast, the cooler shore waters north are spared.

Or were. The lower atmosphere is warming. (I recently posted on that well-known fact.) As are the seas. A river or estuary each will follow its own path, dependent on its own geography and source. Many will follow suit, and warm. A study a few years back found the Chesapeake bay is warming faster than the air over it. (Cite.) Doctors are starting to see vibrio infections as far north as Delaware bay. Those who model such things predict the trend will continue.

Awareness is good. We are safer knowing what to watch for. Be careful in how you think about that, though. The natural human tendency is to think if we know about some risk, we can avoid it or prevent it. And so to look for what the latest victim did wrong.

Our control over such risks is haphazard at best. None of us can guard perfectly against every risk. There are too many. For some reason, the risks from the wild outdoors loom larger in our minds. Necrotizing fasciitis is rare. But more strikes those who play or work on relevant water. Rattlesnake bits are uncommon. But those more at risk are sailors and hikers out in the scrub. Lightning, the standard metaphor for bad luck, likes sailboat masts (video). The photo above, of lightning striking a sailboat in Boston harbor, is from that video. Sharks rarely attack humans. But when they do, it is someone snorkeling or surfing. Someone caught a seven foot bull shark near Bob Hall pier yesterday.

Of course, you can stay inside. But there are risks also to that. The most certain of which is that you will have missed out on a large part of living. And it is the usual dangers of modern life that more kill even those of us who spend time outside. More local fisherman will die in car accidents than ever will suffer a vibrio infection. By orders of magnitude. If you’re careful driving to and from your next outing, that most likely addresses its largest risk.

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