By Sandy Ambrogi and Kathy Prucnell, Islander Reporters
“OMG, this could have been me. I feel so bad for this lady here in Bradenton who is fighting for her life.”
Jeanette Edwards posted her message Nov. 6 about Kelli Brown Whitehead — infected with necrotizing fasciitis — on Facebook.
Whitehead’s plight — hospitalized for a severe case of necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating disease that spread fast, causing her to lose a leg and kidney failure, resulting in dialysis — came after she walked in the waters of Cortez Beach in Bradenton Beach in late October, according to Facebook reports from her mother. Reports also indicate Whitehead is a Type 1 diabetic.
Messages left for Whitehead and her family were not returned.
Edwards, known as the Pelican Lady for her work with Friends for the Pelicans, a nonprofit that rescues sick and dying birds from Palma Sola Bay and the coastal waters of Anna Maria Island.
Her brush with a form of saltwater-borne bacteria — Vibrio vulnificus —was mild in comparison, and she credits that to prompt medical care.
As a rescuer, Edwards was called to help a pelican that was hooked by a fisher Oct. 26 at the Rod & Reel Pier, 875 N. Shore Drive, Anna Maria.
As she attempted to free the bird near a seawall, Edwards fell and cut her hand. Although she washed her hands promptly, her hand became more blistered, swollen and painful the next day.
She went to urgent care and doctors prescribed strong antibiotics and a CT scan to determine if the bacteria had spread.
According to the Florida Department of Health, Vibrio vulnificus is a naturally occurring bacterium in warm brackish seawater. Infections are rare, but people who are immune-compromised are more susceptible.
If present in coastal waters, the Vibrio bacteria will attack open cuts and wounds, causing infection, swelling and blistering and, if not promptly treated, can result in loss of limbs.
The DOH warns beachgoers to wear proper gear to prevent cuts and injuries.
In addition to the bacteria she suffered, Edwards points to another concern in Anna Maria waters — enterococci bacteria, an indicator of fecal matter in the water.
The DOH issued a no-swim advisory Oct. 26 due to high enterococci levels at Bayfront Park North, about 0.4 miles from the Rod & Reel Pier, following testing Oct. 21 and Oct. 23. The advisory was lifted Nov. 5.
“It’s ironic. I want people to check and see if the beach is closed” due to the presence of bacteria.
Instead, thinking the bird couldn’t wait, she added, “I didn’t waste any time.”
Health care partners are required to report certain Vibrio sub-species, including the flesh-eating type, to the DOH.
No such reports have come in on the Edwards and Whitehead cases, Christopher Tittel, DOH Manatee County, director of communications, said in a Nov. 10 email.
Tittel also said he would update The Islander after the Veterans Day holiday, adding:
“Anyone with open cuts or wounds and/or immune systems weakened by diabetes, HIV or other conditions to stay out of the water to avoid any chance of infection from any of the myriad types of bacteria out there.”
About necrotizing fasciitis
Necrotizing fasciitis — commonly called “flesh-eating bacteria” — is a rare condition caused by more than one type of bacteria.
Several bacteria common to the Florida environment can cause the condition, but the most common cause of necrotizing fasciitis is Group A strep.
Vibrio vulnificus is sometimes called “flesh-eating bacteria.” It is a naturally occurring bacteria found in the warm salty waters such as the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding bays.
Concentrations of this bacteria are higher when the water is warmer.
Necrotizing fasciitis and severe infections of Vibrio vulnificus are rare, but can be treated with antibiotics and sometimes require surgery to remove damaged tissue.
People do not “catch” necrotizing fasciitis; it is a complication or symptom of a bacterial infection that has not been promptly or properly treated.
Rapid diagnosis is key to treatment.
Seek medical treatment immediately if you develop signs or symptoms of an infection — redness, swelling, fever, severe pain in the area near or around a wound.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages people to avoid open bodies of water, pools and hot tubs with breaks in the skin. These can include cuts and scrapes, burns, insect bites, puncture wounds, or surgical wounds.
Sources: CDC, Florida Department of Health