DHH: Flesh eating bacteria swimming in Gulf Coast water

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The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals encourages Louisiana residents to exercise caution in swimming in natural bodies of water this summer, as one resident has died and three others have become ill from infections contracted after swimming in seawater along the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

In these four cases, swimmers' wounds were infected by Vibrio vulnificus, naturally occurring bacteria found in warm seawater that is sometimes referred to as flesh eating bacteria. While Louisiana's Gulf waters, lakes and rivers may be tempting for folks trying to cool off during summer vacation, these illnesses serve as reminders to take precautions when swimming in any natural body of water.

DHH reminds people that microscopic germs are found in all natural waterways, and these germs can pose serious health risks. DHH routinely tests beach water and posts advisories on 25 Louisiana beaches if bacteria levels become high.

“We know people are venturing into our state's waterways to cool off this summer, so we advise them to be careful and exercise health precautions,” DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert said. “We certainly do not mean to discourage people from enjoying water activities, but we want them to understand the potential risks involved. DHH works with other state and local partners to monitor and test beach water to inform residents of the water quality and we hope residents will heed posted beach advisories when they see them.”

Illnesses associated with poor water quality include sore throat, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. Children, the elderly or people with weakened immune systems have a greater risk of getting sick when swimming in waters that harbor natural and man-made contaminants. Microorganisms can enter the body through the mouth, nose and ears, as well as through cuts and wounds. Therefore, swallowing the water or immersing one's head or wounds increases the risk of illness.

Some microorganisms occur naturally. Others come from human and animal waste. These enter the water from sewage overflows, polluted storm water runoff, sewage treatment plant malfunctions, urban and rural runoff after it rains, boating wastes, malfunctioning individual sewage treatment systems and agricultural runoff.

Each summer, DHH issues a “Swim at Your Own Risk” Advisory to warn residents about the inherent risk of swimming in the state's natural bodies of water.

“Most people can swim and enjoy the water without any problems or concerns,” said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer. “But, contaminants can find their way into all waterways, so there is always a slight level of risk for infections, especially for those who have chronic illnesses.”

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