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Vibrio bacteria and the Coastal Bend

Vibrio bacteria inhabit our waters during the warmer months.
Vibrio bacteria inhabit our waters during the warmer months.
Larissa M. Diaz

Compared to the frigid, deep, and choppy waters of the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico seems pretty benign. You could count the number of people who have drowned around Corpus Christi on one hand, and – despite avid sightings of massive tiger sharks by fishermen – we have yet to experience a single recorded shark attack on a human. The same can not be said about humans attacking sharks in this area, but that is another matter. In fact, the most threatening creatures to haunt the Coastal Bend (besides us humans, of course) are microscopic.

One of these tiny critters is a pathogen called Vibrio vulnificus. This bacteria populates our waters, causing disease in people who consume raw shellfish to become ill and – occasionally – infecting cuts and wounds that come in contact with the water. According to a study conducted by the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, the number of infections is most frequent in July, when waters are warm and salinity is moderate. However, the same study found Vibrio levels in our area to be low, with fewer than seventy total reported infections caused by water contact from 2000 to 2008. That being said, the National Center for Disease Control suggests that the number of infections for this species often goes unreported due to general unfamiliarity with the bacteria.

Who is at risk? As long as raw or undercooked shellfish – oysters, clams, and mussels – is avoided, Vibrio is of little threat to healthy individuals. However, people who are immunosuppressed and persons with liver disease should not swim in local waters or consume shellfish, since they have been found to be particularly susceptible to the little buggers. Our waters are as safe as you are; be careful, be prepared, and seek a doctor in the event of illness.