TALLAHASSEE, Fla., June 13 (UPI) -- Two people have died so far this year in Florida after contracting vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that lurks in warm seawater, health officials said.
The Florida Department of Health said there have been eight infections and two deaths reported in 2015 from vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that thrives in salty and warm water. People can become infected one of two ways -- by eating raw shellfish that have the bacteria, particularly oysters, or wading into infected waters with an open wound.
The deaths occurred in Brevard and Marion counties, officials said, and most human cases of the bacteria every year typically occur in the Gulf Coast states.
"Of the two, one patient had raw seafood exposure and one had multiple exposures prior to onset of symptoms," Florida Department of Health spokesperson Mara Burger told the Weather Channel.
The department issues warnings every year ahead of the summer season. Florida and other Gulf Coast states, plus Maryland, have the highest rates of infection in the nation, officials say. Florida had 32 vibrio cases and seven deaths in 2014.
Nearly 1,000 people reported being infected by the bacteria between 1988 and 2006, but officials say the disease often goes unreported. According to the Florida Department of Health, seven people died from the affliction last year and 25 were sickened.
"Ingestion of Vibrio vulnificus can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain," the Florida DOH states on its website. "The bacterium can invade the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness with symptoms like fever, chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock) and blistering skin lesions."
Experts say the skin infections can be very painful, and even require limb amputations in severe cases.
The bacteria will kill half of those in whom it progresses to the life-threatening stage, health officials say, particularly those with compromised immune systems.
"Vibrio vulnificus infections can be a serious concern for people who have weakened immune systems, particularly those with chronic liver disease," the Florida DOH website states. Healthy individuals, on the other hand, typically develop mild cases of the disease.
Vibrio vulnificus is often known colloquially as a "flesh-eating" bacteria because of its ability to break down the epidermal layers and form blistering lesions when people contract the infection through open cuts or scrapes. However, it does not meet the official classification of a flesh-eating bacteria -- which is a category for strep A infections, a different group altogether, officials say.
Burger said the highest danger of becoming infected by vibrio vulnificus occurs between May and October, when the sea water is warmest.
Vibrio vulnificus cannot be spread from person to person.