ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Patty Konietzky thought the small purple lesion on her husband’s ankle was a spider bite. But when the lesion quickly spread, she knew something wasn’t right.
After a trip to the hospital and a day and a half later, Konietzky’s 59-year-old husband was dead.
The diagnosis: vibrio vulnificus, an infection caused by a bacterium found in warm saltwater. It’s in the same family of bacterium that causes cholera. This year, 31 people across Florida have been infected by the severe strain of vibrio, and 10 have died.
“I thought the doctors would treat him with antibiotics and we’d go home,” said Konietzky, who lives in Palm Coast.
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State health officials say there are two ways to contract the disease: by eating raw, tainted shellfish — usually oysters — or when an open wound comes in contact with bacteria in warm seawater.
In Mobile, Ala., this week health-department officials said two men with underlying health conditions were diagnosed with vibrio vulnificus in recent weeks. One of the men died in September, and the other is hospitalized. Both men were tending to crab traps when they came into contact with seawater.
While such occurrences could potentially concern officials in states with hundreds of miles of coastline and economies largely dependent on ocean-related tourism, experts say most people should not worry about the bacteria.
Vibrio bacteria exist normally in saltwater and generally only affect people with compromised immune systems, they say. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. If the bacteria get into the bloodstream, they provoke symptoms including fever and chills, decreased blood pressure and blistering skin wounds.
Dr. James Oliver, a professor of biology at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, has studied vibrio vulnificus for decades. He said that while Florida has the most cases of vibrio infection because of the warm ocean water that surrounds the state, the bacteria are found worldwide. “It’s normal flora in the water,” he said. “It belongs there.”
The vast majority of people who are exposed to the bacteria don’t get sick, he said. A few people become ill but recover.
Only a fraction of people are violently ill, and fewer still die; Oliver said many of those people ingest tainted, raw shellfish.
Oliver and Florida Department of Health officials say people shouldn’t be afraid of going into Florida’s waters, but that those with suppressed immune systems, such as people who have cancer, diabetes or cirrhosis of the liver, should be aware of the potential hazards of vibrio vulnificus, especially if they have an open wound.
Diane Holm, a spokeswoman for the state health department in Lee County, said nine people died from vibrio vulnificus in Florida in 2012, and 13 in 2011, so this year’s statistics aren’t alarming.
What’s different, she said, is that victims’ families are speaking to the news media about the danger.
Konietzky’s husband, Henry “Butch” Konietzky, died Sept. 23. She said she feels it’s her mission to let others know about the potential risks. Next week, she and her husband’s daughter are scheduled to appear on “The Doctors” television program to discuss the disease.
“We knew nothing about this bacteria,” she said. Both she and her husband grew up in Florida, and have spent their lives fishing and participating in other water activities.