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Flesh-eating bacteria in Florida waters

9:04 AM, Jul 24, 2007   |    comments
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St. Pete Beach, Florida – It's the time of year when people flock to the beach and it seems like everyone has a healthy respect -- if not, a fear -- of sharks.

But there's another danger lurking in Florida waters. Each year it kills more people in Gulf Coast states than sharks do around the world. It's a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus.

Vibrio vulnificus occurs naturally in warm salt water around the world. The bacteria can contaminate raw oysters and make you sick. It can also enter your system through a very small cut or scrape.

And that's something John Roche wishes he had known.

Roche is a state park manager from Sarasota who loves to fish. And back in 2001, he was vacationing on Florida's East Coast, as always, a pole in his hand.

On this fishing trip, Roche caught a whopper alright: a disease that left him fighting for his life. Roche says the first sign of trouble was a burning pain in his right calf.

John Roche, Vibrio victim:
“This had me writhing on the floor and the leg was getting red and redder.”

Just hours later, the invasion was in full force. Roche entered a coma, the flesh-eating bacteria forced doctors to amputate his leg and his organs began shutting down one by one.

John Roche, Vibrio victim:
“For our 21st wedding anniversary they had my wife picking out a box for me, basically. My sisters had the priest come in three times to give me last rites.”

Cases like Roche's are rare, but when they happen, they are serious. According to the Florida Department of Health, in 2006 there were 27 Vibrio cases from oysters and wounds. Five of those people died.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and local doctors, Vibrio can make healthy people sick, but those most at risk have some type of underlying health condition like liver disease, cancer or AIDS. And those are the people who should avoid raw oysters and use caution around salt water.

Dr. Todd Wills, Tampa General Hospital/University of South Florida:
“Vibrio is a really serious infection that we deal with rarely, but when we do, it tends to be a medical emergency.”

Now with an artificial leg, Roche is happy to be alive and doing the thing he likes best: catching fish.

John Roche, Vibrio victim:
“It's a miracle, it really is. It's my second chance at life.”

But freshwater fishing will have to do. Liver disease and diabetes put Roche in the high-risk category and he says he will never again enter salt  water.

Click here for more information on Vibrio vulnificus from the Centers on Disease Control.

Kathryn Bursch, Tampa Bay's 10 News

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