Officials in Florida have issued a warning about a potentially deadly strain of bacteria in warm saltwater that has infected at least seven people and caused two deaths.
Last year, Florida had 32 confirmed cases of infection from the bacteria known as Vibrio vulnificus, with seven deaths, according to the state Health Department.
The bacteria, which can infect people who eat raw shellfish, can also cause infections through open wounds, said department spokeswoman Mara Burger.
"Since it is naturally found in warm marine waters, people with open wounds can be exposed to Vibrio vulnificus through direct contact with seawater," she warned.
If the infection is caused by the consumption of contaminated food such as raw oysters, initial symptoms can include abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea from gastroenteritis. In rare cases, an infection can cause septicemia, or a blood infection.
These infections can normally be treated successfully with antibiotics, since they are usually mild in healthy people. However, if a person has a compromised immune system or if the infection enters the body through an open wound, it can cause healthy tissue to begin to ulcerate and die in a process known as necrosis — the major symptom associated with other "flesh eating" infections.
In such cases, amputations sometimes become necessary as a last-ditch attempt to save a patient's life, doctors say.
Vibrio vulnificus infections are seasonal, associated with warmer water temperatures. More than 85 percent of infections are seen between May and October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The bacterium can live in water temperatures from 68 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the state health department said.
Experts caution people against entering the water if they have fresh cuts or scrapes or any type of open wound.
The state health department issued a statement intended to allay public fears about swimming at beaches.
"The bacterium does not pose a risk to a normally healthy person (who does not have open cuts or wounds) who swims in Florida's coastal waters," the statement read. "Vibrio vulnificus infections are rare."
The department has created a webpage to educate the public about Vibrio vulnificus, and is posting and updating case counts weekly.