Vibrio vulnificus
Vibrio vulnificus has killed 10 British tourists in FloridaWiki Commons

British tourists visiting Florida have been warned about a deadly flesh-eating marine bacteria that has already killed 10 people.

The Vibrio vulnificus bacteria is found in warm saltwater and targets people with open wounds or low immune systems.

Health officials said 32 people have already contracted the bacteria, which has led to 10 fatalities in the southern US state.

What is Vibrio vulnificus?

The pathogen was first isolated in 1976 from a series of blood culture samples submitted to the CDC in Atlanta.

It is a bacteria of the genus Vibrio, which is present in coastal areas, estuaries and ponds, and is related to Vibrio cholerae, the causative agent of cholera.

V. vulnificus causes an infection often incurred after eating seafood, especially raw or undercooked oysters, and it goes undetected as it does not alter the taste or odour.

The bacteria can also enter the body through open wounds when swimming or wading in infected waters, or via puncture wounds from the spines of fish.

Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and blisters. The bacteria is eighty times more likely to spread into the bloodstream in people with compromised immune systems, especially those with chronic liver disease. This can cause septic shock and death.

The bacteria often causes large, disfiguring ulcers that may require amputation.

V. vulnificus infections also disproportionately affects males. Around 85% of people who develop endotoxic shock from the bacteria are male.

How is it treated?

Vibrio vulnificus wound infections have a mortality of approximately 25%. In patients in whom the infection worsens into septicemia, typically following ingestion, the mortality rate rises to 50%. The majority of these patients die within the first 48 hours of infection.

The best treatment is not yet known, but, in one study of 93 patients in Taiwan, use of a third-generation cephalosporin and a tetracycline gave beneficial results.

The American Medical Association recommends treating the patient with a quinolone or intravenous doxycycline with ceftazidime.

Where is it found?

V. vulnificus is commonly found in the Gulf of Mexico, where more than dozen people have died from the infection since 1990.

Health officials clearly identified strains of V. vulnificus infections among evacuees from New Orleans due to the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.