Two cases of ‘flesh-eating’ bacteria revive concerns among Tampa Bay area doctors

The rare infections appear to come from the same strain of bacteria that causes strep throat. Two men contracted it recently while enjoying the area’s warm waters.
Published April 29
Updated April 30

After two men suffered flesh-eating bacteria infections from local waters recently, Tampa Bay area physicians are warning residents and visitors to be careful swimming in brackish water or eating uncooked seafood.

Mike Walton was fishing in the Gulf of Mexico over Easter weekend when he contracted "necrotizing fasciitis," a bacteria that stops blood circulation and causes tissue to die and skin to decay. According to a GoFundMe page set up by friends, the bacteria came in contact with a cut on his hand from a fish hook and he was treated at Tampa General Hospital.

A few weeks earlier, Barry Briggs developed an infection during a boating trip to Weedon Island. It wasn't until he returned home to Ohio that he began experiencing symptoms, and nearly lost his foot to the aggressive bacteria.

“We kayaked in some brackish water, and there were a lot of little black bugs,” Briggs said. “I remember getting bit on my foot, but I didn’t find any cuts. I was hours away from losing my foot. Something like this goes incredibly fast.”

The infection is somewhat rare, and can come from different strains of bacteria, doctors say.

“It’s called a flesh-eating disease because it’s so rapidly progressing,” Dr. Surbhi Jain, who specializes in undersea and hyperbaric medicine with AdventHealth in Trinity.

“It destroys the skin and the tissue that covers the muscle within 12-to-24 hours,” she said. “The bacteria releases toxins into the tissue, and over time, it dies and begins to decay. It’s quite painful. So patients should really not delay seeking treatment if they do not feel well.”

Usually swelling occurs right away and blisters can form over the wound site. Those blisters will turn black and blue over time as tissue and skin begins to die, Jain said.

Those who have the infection begin to feel flu-like symptoms of fever, dizziness and cold sweats right away. Severe complications are common, like sepsis, shock and organ failure.

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Even with treatment, one in three patients die from necrotizing fasciitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2010, the agency says, between 700 and 1,200 people a year have contracted the infection in the United States. But cases have gone up in the last year in Florida, Jain said.

Both recent cases in the Tampa Bay area seem to stem from the group "A Streptococcus" bacteria, the same bacteria that causes strep throat, and which is generally considered the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis, according to the CDC.

"You don't have to be in water to catch this. You can just be unlucky. It just so happens that both of these cases were in water, but that is pure coincidence," said Dr. Jose Montero, an infectious disease physician with USF Health and Tampa General Hospital.

"Medically speaking, we don't associate saltwater with strep A bacteria," he said.

In Florida, physicians generally see strep A bacteria infections peak from winter through spring. The type of bacteria most commonly contracted through warm water, like in the Gulf of Mexico, is usually seen during hurricane season, Montero said.

Most healthy adults will be able to fight off a necrotizing fasciitis infection without hospital care, Jain said.

It's the elderly, children and people with compromised immune systems or issues like liver disease who are more susceptible to the infection, if they have open wounds or lesions. People in these categories should avoid going in warm saltwater or brackish water, hot tubs and swimming pools. They also should avoid eating raw seafood, like crab, oysters or sushi.

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But the easiest way to avoid contracting the infection is to wash your hands regularly.

"Clean hands save lives," Jain said.

Recovering from necrotizing fasciitis is dependent on how fast the infection is caught and treated by medical professionals, she said. Multiple surgeries are fairly common to remove infected tissue, as are long courses of potent antibiotics.

Jain specializes in hyperbaric medicine, and has seen recoveries made through the oxygen therapy treatment as well.

Briggs is back at home and recovering after spending 11 days in the hospital.

“My wife nudged me to see a doctor when my ankle started swelling,” he recalled. “I blew it off and said I’d go tomorrow if it was still swelled. I didn’t last another 10 minutes after that statement before I passed out.”

Reflecting on the episode, he added: “Time is valuable. If you look back at my symptoms, it didn’t match up. If you can’t explain why you feel the way you do, go get professional help.”

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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