Bay Journal

Four cases of vibrio found in Calvert County. Be careful swimming!

  • August 06, 2010

By Rona Kobell

Four people are believed to have contracted vibrio, a bacterial infection often requiring hospitalization, in Calvert County waterways, prompting the Patuxent Riverkeeper to warn residents and vacationers about contact with the water.

Fred Tutman, who patrols the county’s main river, has been trying to get the word out for the last couple of weeks as the cases have been made known locally. People with any open cuts, no matter how small, should avoid contact with the water, particularly in the Calvert County community of Broomes Island along the Patuxent, where two of the cases were reported.

Tutman said he is particularly concerned because the Calvert County Health Department has not put out any warnings, and one local newspaper is urging people to find a swimming hole close by and jump in so they can cool off.

“People are not getting enough information in order to be prudent,” Tutman said. “They need to swim and be safe. They need to be attentive to water quality problems of this sort.”

Vibrio is a naturally occurring pathogen that is found in shellfish-rich waters. In rare cases, exposure can be fatal. Though vibrio is naturally occurring, Tutman believes this summer’s extreme heat, coupled with the fact that the Patuxent has some of its worst water quality on record, is making the river a hospitable environment for it to flourish. He is working with the University of Maryland to learn more about the pathogen and trying to get the word out to local communities.

Vibrio has been around for decades. Nationwide, people have become infected with it after eating undercooked oysters, or eating raw oysters in large amounts if their health is otherwise compromised. But vibrio can enter human skin through a cut and cause horrible skin infections. Three of the victims were believed to have contracted the disease through open cuts on their skin; the fourth got it from eating undercooked crabs.

David Rogers, the Calvert County Health Officer, said it appears cases of virbrio are increasing slightly statewide over the past four years. But he said the problem was not significant enough to issue any advisories.

“We get maybe three, four cases a year, " Rogers said. "That doesn’t justify putting up advisory signs or closing beaches."

Halfway through the summer, the county has already seen four cases. The first was an was an ear infection on May 30 along a Chesapeake Bay beach. The second was on June 28, when a man went into the water with a wound. The man was from Chesapeake Beach, but Rogers said it wasn't known where he contacted the vibrio.

The third victim was a recreational watermen who cut his leg on July 7 by falling on the dock at Broomes Island, and then entering the water. The victim is a friend of Dwight Williams, division chief of Calvert County’s natural resources department.

Within 24 hours, Williams said, his friend’s leg was inflamed. Within three days, the lower part of the leg was black.

The Bay Journal has included a photo of this case, though Williams said that picture is before the infection reached its worst state.

Williams’ friend ended up at University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where doctors worked to repair his leg.

“It’s very disconcerting, to think that a minor scratch, a minor cut, could really be life-threatening,” Williams said.

The fourth case occurred July 15, when a man ate undercooked seafood that had been caught in the Broomes Island area. The man got a gastrointestinal disorder and is said to be recovering, Rogers said.

Only a few watermen still work out of Broomes Island, but it is popular with recreational trot-liners. There are no public beaches, but there is a marina, and there are many private swimming areas in various communities.

Tommy Zinn, president of the Calvert County Watermen’s Association, said none of his men have been infected with vibrio. But as a crabber in the Patuxent River, he said, he is careful about handling the water. He keeps a bucket of bleachwater on his boat.

“I disinfect several times a day if I do have a cut or an open wound,” Zinn said. "They should put out an advisory that says, ‘don’t go in the water with open cuts.’ I really think that would eliminate a lot of this.”

Bad infections caused by vibrio and other pathogens do happen in the summer, and not just in Calvert County. But Tutman says this trend is unacceptable, and the county needs to warn people.

“We can't ‘normalize’ this by making excuses that in only happens in the summer or is a natural thing,” Tutman said. “Water that makes you sick when you swim in it is anything but normal.”

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