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The Tale of Vibrio Vulnificus

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On: Fri, Jun 18, 2010 at 9:40AM | By: Lee Clymer

 Although when my children were young and thought I was superman, I have never believed in any way that I was particularly super in any way. In spite of that, I am sitting upright in a hospital bed as I write this article and the word “kryptonite” keeps running through my head. I believe I have found my own private little killer weakness and it goes by the name of vibrio vulnificus and it’s not a person of Italian royality. I assure you this exquisite little pain causer is extremely good at what it does, and what it does is make you very, very sick.

 In my case it caused an infection in my lower left leg that resulted in a condition called cellulites. In other cases it can cause serious gastrointestinal tract infections, causing a variety of conditions from nausea to diarrhea, and worse. In cases where it enters the blood stream, as it often does, it has recorded a fifty percent mortality rate, and is responsible for ninety five percent of the seafood-related deaths in the U.S.

My run-in with this tiny little beast began innocently enough with a tiny scratch caused by a barnacle on the bottom of my dinghy. A cat can cause a much worse scratch than the one I received, but it was enough.

There was water in my dinghy and when I flipped it back over after emptying it, I got a very small scratch approximately an inch long and maybe a twentieth of an inch wide. That was eight in the morning. By four in the afternoon my leg had started hurting around the scratch and became inflamed. An area the size of a
softball had become Corvette red and throbbed like a marching band playing rap. I treated it with peroxide and Neosporin and figured I would stay on top of it.

My case was very classic in the sense I suffered all the classic symptoms. In the case of puncture wounds, and to some degree ingestion, this bacteria runs a pretty specific course. There are two ways to come in contact with this bacteria. The first, which is most common and the most deadly is ingestion. Raw mollusks (clams, oysters, scallops, etc.) lead the way in sharing this deadly little creature, but even some sushi has been known to be the source. The second, which, of course, is the way I met head on with it, is a wound infection.

Although a barnacle cut me and delivered its poisonous living package, any open wound in the water is capable of becoming infected with vibrio vulnificus.

Wound infections typically begin just as mine did. There is swelling, redness, and very intense pain…emphasis on the pain. Next comes blistering, and, yes, they look much like a burn blister, only redder, and, believe it or not, much more painful. The really scary part about those blisters is they are the first stage of a process that parallels gangrene. Even more scary is that fifty percent of the patients require a course of action of debridement (deep scrubbing of the tissue…can you imagine scrubbing an area already intensely painful?), or worse yet, but frequently, amputation.

Yet, believe it or not, it can get even worse. If this infection gets into the bloodstream death is almost certain.

I want to take one paragraph and explain how badly this hurt. I do consider myself capable of taking pretty intense pain. I look back on my years in the military where a four on a scale of ten was as common as breathing. At fifty-five I have had my share of pain, but this was the worst thing I had ever experienced. It was brutal.

They asked me my pain level, and in between painful gasps all I could say is it was my ten. Getting out of bed was sometimes next to impossible, making going to the restroom my version of an X Game. This was not a dull throbbing but a constant ringing of a pain bell. As I said I have never experienced anything even close. Even with a strong drug called dilaudid, a morphine derivative, given intravenously, I was in constant pain. The swelling stretched my skin making my leg look much like a miniature Macy’s parade float.

After a few days the antibiotics started kicking in and the pain let up as long as my leg was propped on three pillows. As soon as I swung my leg over the side of the bed to go to the restroom, however, the pain would sing out like a choir of demons.

Many people to whom I have told this story have automatically started discussing pollution as the cause but that is not how it is. This bacteria is common throughout the world in warm waters. The Chesapeake was noted as having more cases than anywhere else in the U.S. The term “vibrio” literally refers to the fact they require salt for growth.

I haven’t found anything of note that we can do in the first aid department to stop this infection. My suggestion is to go to the doctor immediately if you suspect you are infected. It’s the only reason I’m here to write this, according to my doctor. When I walked into his office the day I was released from the hospital, he said, “I’m glad to see you!” I thought it strange but returned the salutation in a like manner. He immediately made it clear what he meant by saying, “No, you don’t understand, I am glad to see you!” He then explained the mortality rate. Later that same day a man from the CDC called with similar sentiments. He finished his statement by saying, “You should be glad just to have your leg.” Infection from ingestion is much worse by the way, and typically has a ninety-five percent mortality rate. Even if I wasn’t allergic to mollusks, I would never eat another one raw, knowing what I know now.

News organizations typically take something like this and seriously sensationalize it as if it is as common as a car wreck. The only statistics I could find indicated this is not a common infection, but just a deadly one. I’m not trying to scare you but simply make you aware. I do suggest you investigate this on your own and
understand the significance, treatments, and general knowledge. Trust me, it’s not something you want to experience.


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