BP oil spill or Mother Nature? Is vibrio on the rise in the Mississippi Sound?

Ronald “Griz” Winnert of Waveland may not remember the first time he went fishing, but he can definitely tell you the last time he fished from the seawall near the Silver Slipper Casino in Bay St. Louis.

It was June 19, 2016.

“I got up around 3 a.m. and went fishing — I did it all the time,” he said.

Winnert, 57, who is diabetic, thought nothing about his early-morning fishing excursion. But things started to change rapidly after he returned to his elevated Waveland home, tucked in the woods of Hancock County.

“I came home and all of the sudden I got cold and I started shaking — I was freezing,” he said. “I woke up 10 days later without a leg.”

He had been exposed to vibrio in the warm water of the Bay of St. Louis.

Winnert’s daughter Brandy Miller read as much as she could find on vibriosis and necrotizing fasciitis. She also became familiar with the vibrio bacteria, which is the culprit for her father’s illness.

“I had never heard of vibrio until after the BP oil spill,” she said. “Then it seemed like every year, you heard about someone else getting flesh-eating bacteria — I even told Dad that I thought it was a bad idea for him to go in the water.”

Miller and Winnert want to spread the word to people who have been fishing all their lives and may not know they have a weak immune system about what could happen to them. They are particularly concerned about locals who don’t have insurance or access to the best medical care, but are still fishing.

What is vibrio?

Vibrio is a bacterium that lives in some coastal bodies of water and thrives in warm water. Exposure to vibrio can cause vibriosis in some humans, including vibrio vulnificus, the form of vibriosis that cost Winnert his right leg.

According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, there were 1,252 confirmed vibrio infections in the U.S. in 2014, the last year available for data. There were nine confirmed cases in Mississippi in 2014. The CDC claims there are about a dozen species of the vibrio bacteria.

Humans can be exposed to vibrio through eating raw or undercooked shellfish or by drinking or swimming in seawater. The bacteria also can enter open wounds, as was the case with Winnert.

“I was wearing pants the day I went fishing, but I had a cut on my leg but it was bandaged,” he said. “I didn’t even get in the water. Some just splashed on my leg.”

Although the CDC says anyone can get sick from vibrio, those with compromised immune systems are most at risk.

“The people that we think of that are at the highest risk for severe outcomes are folks who have diabetes, liver disease or anyone who has a compromised immune system, including those who are taking treatments for cancer,” said, Dr. Paul Byers, deputy epidemiologist with the Mississippi State Department of Health, in a 2016 interview with the Sun Herald. “We usually don’t see the infection in infants and children, but in older adults with underlying chronic health problems.” HIV patients are also at risk.

Symptoms of an infection from vibrio can range range from mild in nature to death by sepsis, an infection in the bloodstream. They include blisters on the skin, diarrhea, vomiting, fever and chills. The symptoms usually occur within 24 hours of exposure to the bacteria. The fatality rate for those infected with vibriosis is considered high.

“A 50 percent fatality rate for an infection is high,” Byers said.

A major concern of Miller’s since her father’s life-and-death battle has been the condition of the water of the Mississippi Sound.

“We would like to see some of the BP money the state is getting to be used to clean up the water and to educate people about vibrio — what’s going to happen to the next person like Dad that doesn’t know about their immune system and then gets into the water?”

A cause for concern?

But is her concern for the water quality, especially since the BP oil spill, a valid one? It depends on whom you ask.

According to a 2011 study conducted by Auburn University’s Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures, tar balls collected after the Deepwater Horizon spill contained a “significant” increase in vibrio vulnificus than in sand and seawater collected in the same area.

You can click on the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s website on any given day and see a list of beaches that are closed in South Mississippi because of a large presence of bacteria in the water. This includes enterococcus bacteria, but the MDEQ does not specifically monitor for vibrio.

A 2016 study by the National Academy of the US correlates the increase in the presence of vibrio to something else — the climate. The report says the growing presence of vibrio is tied to “a warming trend in sea surface temperature (that) is strongly associated with spread of vibrios, an important group of marine prokaryotes, and emergence of human diseases caused by these pathogens.”

In a nutshell, the report’s author posits the increase in vibrio is linked to climate change.

Rita R. Colwell, the study’s primary author, based the study on changes between the environment and plankton.

Is the water clean?

“It really breaks my heart,” said Kristina Broussard, a scientist with the Mississippi Department for Marine Resources, “when people say our water is dirty because it’s not, it’s just so abundant in phytoplankton — it’s really a healthy body of water.”

Monty Graham, professor and director of the School of Ocean Science and Technology at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, agrees with Broussard that the Mississippi Sound is healthy, at least in an ecological sense.

“When you talk about healthy water, you’re really talking about two things — is the fish from the water safe to eat and can you swim in it,” Graham said. “A healthy ecosystem is based on how many nutrients are being put into the water from the river and sometimes too much of the nutrients can drive things in a negative way.”

Graham said the Mississippi Sound is misunderstood.

“This area from Mobile Bay to the tip of Texas is called the ‘fisheries fertile crescent’ and for a reason,” he said. “With the rivers comes ‘dirty water,’ meaning that it’s full of sediments that are needed for healthy fish production — you don’t want the crystal-blue waters of Florida for the fisheries that we rely on — but our ability to regulate the water coming in is very important. But you don’t think about disease control and a healthy ecosystem in the same conversation.”

He said although there is still a lot to learn about vibrio, progress is being made in how to track the bacteria.

“We’re on the cusp of having the modeling to give us the predictability in vibrio,” Graham said. “But we currently don’t have a great model of the Mississippi Sound and it’s a very important body of water — the technology is there, we just need to implement it and have the money to do it.”

Who is at risk?

Anyone can get sick from vibriosis, but you may be more likely to get an infection or severe complications if:

▪ You have liver disease, cancer, diabetes, HIV, or thalassemia

▪ You receive immunity-suppressing therapy for the treatment of disease

▪ You take medicine to decrease stomach-acid levels

▪ You have had recent stomach surgery

Source: Mississippi State Department of Health

How to stop an infection from vibrio exposure to a wound

▪ Flush out the wound with sterile water. Use bottled water if you are on a boat. Do not use sea water.

▪ Wash the wound with soap and water.

▪ Flush and clean the wound with hydrogen peroxide. Disinfect with a generous application of Betadine. Hydrogen peroxide and Betadine are available at all drug stores and should be included as part of your first aid kit on any boat.

▪ If your wound starts to swell and turn bright red, go immediately to the closest emergency room. Inform the attending physician about the injury and that it was exposed to saltwater. Tell the ER physician you suspect a vibrio infection.

Source: University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Lab

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