Woman contracts flesh-eating bacteria in Fairhope


A 70-year-old, retired teacher from Mississippi says she has contracted vibrio vulfinicus bacteria in Fairhope. It is unclear whether the bacteria came from local waters or shrimp she was using as bait.

The woman, whose name is being withheld for privacy reasons, spent more than 10 days in a Mississippi hospital fighting the disease, commonly referred to as the flesh-eating bacteria because of how swiftly it destroys soft tissue.

The woman, who frequently visits Fairhope with her husband, was fishing near the municipal pier two weeks ago when she reached into a bait bucket of live shrimp and pricked the back of her hand. Her husband said three hours later she was “deathly sick.”

The woman’s hand began to swell and she experienced fever, chills, and headaches. Hours, later, about 3 a.m., the couple headed home to Mississippi where he checked her into the emergency room.

The man said she was in surgery within hours as doctors attempted to save her hand.

“They removed a lot of tissue from her hand and forearm,” he said. “The cultures came back as vibrio.”

The woman underwent a second surgery to remove more dead tissue and was scheduled to undergo reconstructive surgery.

“With all things considered, when you look at the statistics, the doctors keep telling us she’s a miracle,” her husband said. “Most people either die or loose a limb.”

Last month a Texas man died after contracting the bacteria while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. That man already suffered from liver damage and entered the water with a new tattoo, giving the bacteria a giant entryway into his body. Doctors say patients with existing medical conditions or weakened immune systems are more at risk to suffer from this bacteria and a host of others that live in fresh and salt waters.

Officials said that while Gulf and bay waters are potential homes for vibrio vulfinicus, it also thrives among shellfish and shrimp. Until more questions are answered, it is uncertain where she came in contact with the bacteria.

“This could have been with the shellfish, we don’t know where she obtained the bait, there are a lot of questions to ask and we certainly want to look into it,” said Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer, Bureau of Communicable Diseases.

Vibrio vulfinicus is a notifiable disease in Alabama, meaning medical personnel who treat the bacteria must tell the state. The Mississippi hospital has not sent information to Alabama and may not be required to. Landers said her office would look into the case.

The hospital treating the victim also would not verify the vibrio vulfinicus diagnosis, citing HIPAA privacy rules.

Landers said she continues to advise people who are swimming to be aware of their own health status.

“If you have a situation that weakens your immune system or you have existing cuts or abrasions be aware that does raise your risk of a bacterial infection,” she said. “We recognize we are seeing a little more of this and we’re not sure what the reason is but we have to be aware.”

The victim’s husband said she did not swim or wade in the bay waters though she did reach into the water to pull her catch out of the bay. He said she had no other open wounds other than the prick from her bait.

“It’s very nasty stuff,” he said of the bacteria. “We love this area. It was just a freak thing.”