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SARASOTA, Fla. -- Our sister station WTSP has confirmed that two people have contracted flesh eating bacteria in Sarasota County in the last month. One victim has died.

Few details are available, and it isn't clear if both people contracted the bacteria in the same body of water.

Vibrio vulnificus -- the bacteria that can lead to the "flesh eating" condition also known as "necrotizing fasciitis" -- live in warm, salty waters. While infections are rare, health officials say individuals should take precautions.

Infections in people with those types of conditions have a 50 percent fatality rate.

When it infects the skin via open wounds, Vibrio vulnificus can cause skin breakdown and ulcers. Ingestion of the bacteria can trigger vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

People with weakened immune systems, especially those with chronic liver disease, are the most at risk when they eat raw shellfish, especially oysters, health officials said, because oysters filter the bacteria from the water. Eating a single contaminated oyster can kill.

States in the Gulf Coast region average about 50 cases, 45 hospitalizations and 16 deaths annually, according to the Florida Department of Health. Most of the cases are in Florida, which has averaged about 27 cases annually over the past five years.

The bacteria rarely cause serious disease, and as a result is underreported, according to the CDC. Illness usually begins within one to three days of exposure, but up to a week later for a small percentage of cases. Symptoms include fever, swelling and redness of skin on arms or legs, with blood-tinged blisters, low blood pressure and shock.

Even an ant bite or any tiny wound can allow an entry point for the bacteria.

Vibrio vulnificus belongs to the same family of bacterium as those that cause cholera. It inhabits warm, salty water and is part of a group of bacteria called "halophilic" because they require salt.

It dies at salt levels typical of the ocean but thrives at lower to moderate salt concentrations, such as those found in the lagoon.

Tips to prevent Vibrio vulnificus infection:

  • Do not eat raw oysters or other raw shellfish.
  • Cook shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels) thoroughly.
  • For shellfish in the shell, either a) boil until the shells open and continue boiling for 5 more minutes, or b) steam until the shells open and then continue cooking for 9 more minutes. Do not eat those shellfish that do not open during cooking. Boil shucked oysters at least 3 minutes, or fry them in oil at least 10 minutes at 375°F.
  • Avoid cross-contamination of cooked seafood and other foods with raw seafood and juices from raw seafood.
  • Eat shellfish promptly after cooking and refrigerate leftovers.
  • Avoid exposure of open wounds or broken skin to warm salt or brackish water, or to raw shellfish harvested from such waters.
  • Wear protective clothing (e.g., gloves) when handling raw shellfish.

Florida Today contributed to this report.

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