Vibrio vulnificus infections mainly threaten older people with wounds on their bodies

Vibrio vulnificus. Credit: Adobe Stock (Giovanni Cancemi).
Vibrio vulnificus. Credit: Adobe Stock (Giovanni Cancemi).

Vibrio vulnificus bacterial infections are not common, but they are dangerous. Treating the infection is difficult, and the disease may lead to death, says Dr. Monika Kurpas, an expert from the Medical University of Gdańsk who deals with this bacterium.

Recently, German media reported on a 74-year-old German man who died after swimming in the Baltic Sea and being infected with the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. The German incident is not the first, and cases of infection have also happened in Poland.

'There is more talk about it in Germany, but patients with Vibrio vulnificus infections have also been treated at the Department of Hyperbaric Medicine and Maritime Rescue - National Centre for Hyperbaric Medicine', says Dr. Kurpas, assistant professor at the Department of Immunobiology and Environmental Microbiology of the Medical University of Gdańsk. She has been investigating the presence of Vibrio vulnificus in the coastal waters of the Bay of Gdańsk for several years.

'There are no accurate epidemiological data in Poland, but in the United States, 150-200 cases are reported every year, of which nearly 20 percent of patients die,’ she adds, saying that treating the infection is difficult and the disease may lead to death.

'The therapy is complicated. Bacteria can penetrate the wound and cause a necrotic infection of the soft tissues. The treatment takes a long time, it is often necessary to administer several different antibiotics at the same time and use other methods, such as hyperbaric therapy or surgical treatment.

‘It is worth being careful, although healthy people are generally safe. The bacterium primarily attacks older people who also have injuries. We are also talking about people with weakened immunity or those treated for comorbidities (diabetes, cancer, kidney disease or hepatitis). Based on the available literature, we know that infection may develop in open cuts, postoperative wounds, fresh tattoos and piercings.’

The presence of V. vulnificus in the Baltic Sea is not natural - this bacterium is found primarily in tropical regions. There is no regular monitoring of its occurrence in Poland. 'In the case of Vibrio vulnificus, we do not have official monitoring of the entire coast. As part of research conducted at the Medical University of Gdańsk, by the Department of Immunobiology and Environmental Microbiology (Faculty of Health Sciences with the Institute of Maritime and Tropical Medicine), I have been looking for this bacterium in the region of the Bay of Gdańsk and the Hel Peninsula for over 3 years. In 2021, our first publication confirming the presence of this pathogen in the Bay of Gdańsk was published,’ Dr. Kurpas continues. 

The bacterium may also pose an increasing threat due to climate change.

'Climate warming is one of the main factors influencing the occurrence of this bacterium in the Baltic Sea. Generally, bacteria belonging to the Vibrio genus prefer brackish and warm water bodies, which is why the Baltic Sea is an attractive environment for them, especially in the summer season. Every year we isolate these bacteria from both water and sand in the Bay of Gdańsk areas.

‘It is also good to be careful when vacationing in warm countries. The danger is greater in warm waters. A risk map is available on the website of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC),’ she says. The map is available here. (PAP)

Marek Matacz

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