How Much Should You Worry About "Flesh-Eating Bacteria" at Galveston Beaches?

It's safe to say Galveston beaches are having a pretty bad month.

First, local TV news stations reported either inaccurate or misleading stories about a “handful of sea lice cases” in Galveston, accidentally freaking out dozens of beachgoers.

Then, a shark chomped into a six-year-old's leg while she was floating in a tube in knee-deep water, a bite that required surgery.

And now, doctors have had to amputate a man's leg after he contracted what the news media calls the “flesh-eating" virus while swimming in the water with family.

Yeah, all of this in just two weeks.

So Galveston County Health District's public information guy, Scott Packard, has been keeping busy — tasked with quelling the fears of anyone who consumes media reports about these downright horrible events.

Packard said he understands the headlines could be worrisome to thousands of beachgoers planning trips to Galveston. And he said all of the staff at the beach and health district feel for the families who are having to go through these traumatizing experiences.

But still, Packard said: They are extremely rare cases, and there is no need to cancel your beach plans because of them.

As for the “flesh-eating” virus, Packard said that of the roughly 6 million Galveston beach visitors per year, fewer than ten become ill with what is actually called Vibrio. You can get the infection by eating raw shellfish or, less commonly, when a microscopic bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus enters into an open wound by chance in warm saltwater or brackish water.

Most people's immune systems fight off the bacteria. For those with health risks, however, Vibrio can be dangerous. People with diabetes, liver disease, cancer or HIV are more at risk for infection because of compromised immune systems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The CDC estimates that around 80,000 people come down with Vibrio per year, and that 100 of them die.

The infection becomes life-threatening when the bacteria reaches the bloodstream, causing symptoms such as high fever, sepsis, chills and perhaps the worst of all: necrotizing fasciitis (a.k.a. “flesh-eating” in the media), which is when the bacteria begins destroying skin and tissue.

That's what brought 50-year-old Brian Parrott to the hospital, where he remains. On June 12, Parrott, who is diabetic, took a day trip down to Galveston with his family and swam in the Gulf. But in the days afterward, Parrott started feeling sick, and his leg was swelling up with blisters, as the Houston Chronicle reported. Parrott went to the hospital, where doctors recognized the signs of Vibrio right away. They decided to amputate half of his leg Tuesday to decrease the chance the infection would spread. He is still fighting to stay alive.

Packard said what happened to Parrott is both extremely unfortunate and "extraordinarily rare."

“I can see why people would be concerned,” Packard said. “But if there is ever an uptick in any sort of public health issue, we will put out information about it right away.”

As for shark bites, according to the international database Global Shark Attack File, there have been 70 shark attacks along the Texas Gulf Coast since 1865, 18 of which were in Galveston. Only five of the 70 incidents were fatal. The last time a shark killed a person in Galveston was 1932.

“You're more likely to get in a car accident, you're more likely to get food poisoning, you're more likely to get struck by lightning than to be bit by a shark in Galveston,” Packard said.

Still, that might not be the easiest thing to explain to the six-year-old girl and the man fighting for his life in the hospital, who just happened to have some of the rarest beach experiences in the country — in the same place, in the same month.

But at least we can leave you with this: There are no reported cases of sea lice at the Galveston beaches. 

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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn