Health dept: bacteria’s presence not unusual

(July 5, 2019) Even though the reports were true that a child contracted a serious bacterial infection after playing in the Isle of Wight Bay last week, that doesn’t mean people should stay out of the water, health department officials said this week.

What matters, said Debra Stevens, director of community health at the Worcester County Health Department, is understanding that going in any body of water with an open cut or wound is not a good idea, because that is how bacteria can enter a person’s system.

Whether the five-year-old Ocean City boy had any cuts when he went swimming off Horn Island last Sunday isn’t known, but it is a fact that he became infected with one of the nastier strains of the vibrio bacteria.

His mother, Brittany Carey, said his grandparents had taken him swimming that Sunday, and that red spots began to manifest themselves on Monday.


A 5-year-old boy, from Ocean City, experienced a non-life-threatening case of Vibrio which causes open wounds on his legs from swimming in the bay near Hooper’s Crab House in West Ocean City. He has since been treated and is in recovery.

“I started noticing little spots developing all over his body,” she wrote on Facebook. “Tuesday morning there were open wounds developing, but I had thought he was scratching them, making them worse.

“When I picked him up Tuesday, they were a lot bigger and a lot more. Off to the hospital we went to be told it was really nothing and an antibiotic that only made it worse.

“So, doctors on Thursday, and then PRMC (Peninsula Regional Medical Center) to find out my little one now had vibrio.”

Most likely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this infection, or vibriosis, was from vibrio vulnificas, which is one of a dozen species in the vibrio family that can cause human illness.

Moreover, this naturally occurring organism is found in coastal waters most of the time, but is more abundant when water temperatures are higher.

 “The prevalence of the levels of vibrio goes up and down based on the water temperature, certainly as the water temperatures get warmer,” Steven said.

Kathy Phillips, Coastkeeper for Assateague Coastal Trust, agreed that warmer winter temperatures and warmer overall temperatures have contributed to multiple forms of bacteria thriving in local waters.

“As Coastkeeper, we have been monitoring the back bays since Memorial Day weekend,” Phillips said. “The water quality data that we’ve been pulling in shows that throughout the northern coastal bays from the Route 50 bridge north, we have been seeing high salinity levels and very warm water temperatures.”

Vibrio bacteria does not linger long in oceanic waters, and it was considered an anomaly to find vibrio near the Route 50 bridge, as the strong tides there flush out the water every six hours, Phillips said.

ACT typically tests the waters for enterococci bacteria weekly but not for vibrio. However, if the organization’s Swim Guide show high levels of enterococci then other bacteria can be flourishing too, she said.

However, just because there might be high levels of the strain does not mean people need to avoid the water, both Phillips and Stevens said.

“Incidents of vibrio are really very rare,” Stevens said. “If you are going to go into the water though, certainly water safety is a primary concern. Make sure that children are supervised by adults. If you’re going to be on a boat or going into the water … that you have the appropriate flotation devices. etc.

“But in terms of concerns regarding exposure to bacteria, any kind of cuts that you have on your skin you should try to cover with a waterproof bandage,” she continued. “The only way that the bacteria can get into your body is either through ingestion or swallowing the water or through cuts in the skin.”

“Really young children are susceptible to vibrio, but also adults or really anyone who has a compromised immune system, whether it be taking medications or whether they have a health issue like diabetes,” Phillips said. “Everybody just needs to be aware that bacteria exist in the water and under certain conditions … bacteria can flourish, whether it’s vibrio or any other type of bacteria that’s in the water. So people should just play smart when they’re out on the water.”

People with liver disease, diabetes, weakened immune systems, iron overload disease (hemochromatosis), and people taking stomach acid reducers are at increased risk of severe infection. 

Stevens also recommends that people wear water shoes with rubber soles to avoid cutting their feet on shells and to take hot showers after swimming and to wash their hands with sanitizer.

“I just can’t stress enough making sure that you shower after swimming in the waters,” Stevens said. “You want to make sure that you wash everything off afterwards.”

Phillips recommends keeping a first aid kit  available so cuts can be treated immediately with an alcohol wipe or antibacterial ointment.

Meanwhile, Carey’s son has been treated and is on the mend. As a nurse’s assistant, however, Carey urges others to be vigilant.

“I know we’ve all seen these cases in the Delaware bay, but now my little guy got this from being in the bay right by Hooper’s,” Carey said. “Please be careful out there guys, and if you start seeing wounds such as these, please get somewhere fast.”

To see salinity and bacterial levels in the coastal bays, visit To learn more about vibrio and its symptoms, visit or https://mde.maryland. gov/publichealth/Pages/Vibrio.aspx.

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