NCDHHS urges caution after three deaths due to Vibrio this summer

RALEIGH — The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging North Carolinians to be aware of the potential dangers of having wounds or cuts open to saltwater or brackish water following reports of three deaths due to Vibrio infections in North Carolina residents.

Vibrio are bacteria that normally live in warm seawater or brackish water (mixed salt and fresh water, as is found in an estuary or salt marsh) and can be found worldwide. Since they are naturally found in warm waters, people with open wounds, cuts or scratches can be exposed to these bacteria through direct contact with seawater or brackish water. Vibrio can also cause disease in those who eat raw or undercooked oysters and shellfish.

Vibrio cases in North Carolina are rare, with most cases being reported in the warmest months — June through September. However, Vibrio infections can cause severe illness. Since 2019, eight of the 47 reported cases among North Carolina residents have been fatal. The three most recent fatalities have occurred in July 2023. Two of the three cases had scratches that were exposed to brackish water in North Carolina and another east coast state. The third case also had brackish water exposure in North Carolina, however, the individual also consumed personally caught seafood that was not shared nor commercially distributed. No links have been identified between the cases or the areas where they were likely exposed to Vibrio, and public health investigations are ongoing. No other information about the decedents will be shared at this time due to privacy concerns.

While healthy individuals typically develop mild illness, Vibrio infections can be severe or life threatening for people with weakened immune systems or chronic liver disease. If you start to see signs of a skin infection after contact with brackish waters or seawater, you should contact your health care provider. Other symptoms can include diarrhea, stomach pain, vomiting, nausea, fever and chills.

Following these recommendations will help reduce your likelihood of exposure and infection:

  • If you have a wound (including from a recent surgery, piercing or tattoo), stay out of saltwater or brackish water, if possible. This includes wading at the beach.
  • Cover your wound with a waterproof bandage if it could come into contact with saltwater, brackish water or raw or undercooked seafood.
  • If you sustain any type of wound while in salt or brackish water (e.g., cutting your hand on a boat propeller or crab pot) immediately get out of the water and wash with soap and water.
  • Wash wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and water after contact with saltwater, brackish water or raw seafood.
  • Thoroughly cook all shellfish to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Reports of Vibrio infections associated with brackish water contact have been increasing over the past several decades, and the geographic range of waters associated with infection is spreading north along the East Coast of the U.S. due to increasing water temperatures. As climate change increases water temperatures, more Vibrio cases can be expected, and they are likely to be identified in previously unaffected areas.

More information on Vibrio can be found on the CDC website and the NCDHHS-Division of Public Health website.