Vibriosis Cases Linked to Potomac River Exposure

From July to September, vibrio infections have sent at least four people to the hospital in Virginia’s Bay region. Two of the cases came after direct contact with the Potomac River.

Vibrio is a water-borne bacteria that can cause a skin infection when open wounds are exposed in salt or brackish water. In serious cases, vibriosis can require intensive care or amputation, and can lead to death.

The two Potomac River cases were from Vibrio vulnificus, a strain of the bacteria which can cause an infection of the skin or bloodstream, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s Rappahannock Area Health District epidemiologist, Nicole Sullivan.


Mary Washington Healthcare spokesperson Lisa Henry says all of the patients were treated at its health facilities. Henry says they see vibrio cases around this time each year, when water temperatures are prime for the bacteria to flourish.

Sullivan tells Bay Bulletin, there have been five cases of vibriosis in the Rappahannock district so far in 2019, slightly higher than the typical zero to four cases health officials have seen in each of the last several years.

In general, most vibrio infections come from eating tainted shellfish, and cause symptoms similar to food poisoning. But the recent Potomac River patients simply made contact with the water while fishing.

“In Virginia, natural habitats for Vibrio species are the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and the Bay tributaries (including the James, York, Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers),” says Sullivan.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises everyone to stay out of salt or brackish water if you have a wound (including cuts scrapes or even insect bites), or cover your wound with a waterproof bandage if there’s a possibility it could come into contact with salt water or brackish water. If it happens, wash wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and water. And if any infection develops, tell the doctor you’ve been in contact with a body of water.

Symptoms of a possible infection can include swelling, redness, blistering or pain in the wounded area. If a skin infection from vibrio isn’t properly treated, it could progress into a “flesh-eating bacteria” infection called necrotizing fasciitis.


To find out more about vibrio’s presence on the Chesapeake Bay, click here.

-Meg Walburn Viviano


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