Florida Health Department to Tourists: Don't Worry About That Flesh-Eating Bacteria

Last week, TV stations and wire reports began spreading an urgent warning from the Florida Department of Health: A flesh-eating bacteria was spreading in Florida's oceans, health officials warned. More than 30 swimmers have been infected in the past year, including seven in 2015. Two people have already died this year from the bacteria, which — again — literally eats human flesh.

Now the Florida DOH has released an equally vital update. "Visitors Encouraged to Visit Florida's Beautiful Beaches," reads the glowing, slightly redundant headline. Oh, and about that whole flesh-eating bacteria thing? Don't worry about it!   

"Florida's beaches and water are safe to enjoy responsibly," the DOH says in the newest release. "Risk of infection is minimal if you take proper precautions."

It's understandable why state officials felt the need to backpedal. The trouble began with the DOH's first release, on May 29, linking to a website with videos and news about Vibrio vulnificus, a potentially deadly bacteria that grows naturally in warm ocean waters. 

The page includes an updated chart about Vibrio vulnificus infections in Florida and shows that 2015 has seen seven cases to date but that the bacteria doesn't really begin to thrive until the warm season kicks off in May.

Though no Miami-Dade cases are noted, the bacteria is in South Florida waters — two people in Broward have been infected this year. Two swimmers in Brevard and Marion counties have died from the bug.

Still, as health officials note, the bacteria is the greatest threat to those with weakened immune systems or chronic liver disease. And the bacteria enters the body only through open wounds, so if you're not swimming with unprotected cuts, you're probably fine.

That didn't stop some news sources from running wild with all of that helpful Vibrio vulnificus information, though:


With headlines like that popping up around the web, the DOH issued its latest release.

"This week, several media outlets published stories that contained inaccuracies about the safety of Florida's beach water related to cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections," the DOH says. "The bacterium does not pose a risk to a normally healthy person (who does not have open cuts or wounds) who swims in Florida's coastal waters. Vibrio vulnificus infections are rare."

Fair enough. Consider yourself warned, South Florida swimmers — but probably don't panic just yet.
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink