A rare, potentially deadly bacteria that lives in warm seawater has infected seven people and killed two so far this year in Florida, according to state health officials.
"People can get infected with Vibrio vulnificus when they eat raw shellfish," Florida Health Department spokeswoman Mara Burger said in a statement. "Since it is naturally found in warm marine waters, people with open wounds can be exposed to Vibrio vulnificus through direct contact with seawater."
When the bacterium is eaten in contaminated food, symptoms of the disease include vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. When Vibrio vulnificus enters the body through an open wound, it can cause infections that may lead to skin breakdown and ulcers -- the notorious "flesh-eating" symptoms.
While healthy people typically experience only mild symptoms, those with a weakened immune system, particularly people living with chronic liver disease, are at a higher risk for severe complications. The bacterium can invade the bloodstream and cause fever, chills, blistering skin lesions, septic shock, and death.
Cases of Vibrio vulnificus are rare - there were 32 cases reported in Florida last year - and infections are seasonal. Over 85 percent occur between May and October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To avoid infection, experts recommend not entering the water if you have fresh cuts or scrapes. People with a compromised immune system should take extra precautions by wearing proper foot protection to prevent cuts caused by rocks and shells on the beach.
Shellfish, including oysters, clams, and mussels, should be cooked thoroughly and eaten promptly after cooking. Raw shellfish should be avoided.
Most cases of Vibrio vulnificus are treated with antibiotics. In some severe cases, amputation of the infected limb is necessary.