Health & Wellness Society & Culture

Experts available to comment on flesh-eating bacteria

James Hollibaugh is the Distinguished Research Professor of Marine Sciences at UGA.

Athens, Ga. – Warnings have been issued for beach-goers surrounding a flesh-eating bacteria thriving in the warm ocean waters. Vibrio vulnificus grows in warm water and if swallowed can cause stomachache, vomiting and diarrhea, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If it enters an open wound, “skin breakdown and ulceration” can also occur, the CDC said. University of Georgia experts are available to offer commentary on flesh-eating bacteria.

“People worry about getting eaten by a shark, but the risk from a Vibrio infection may actually be greater, especially during the summer,” said James Hollibaugh, Distinguished Research Professor of marine sciences at the University of Georgia. “What’s different is that you can’t see the bacteria. But they are there.”

Vibrio grow best when water temperatures are 20 to 30 degrees Celsius, or 68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the CDC, 75 percent of infections occur between May and October. Contact with the bacteria can occur through open wounds or when eating raw or undercooked shellfish.

“Among the many species of Vibrio, there are four that are typically associated with human illness including V. cholerae, V. parahaemolyticus, V. vulnificus and V. alginolyticus,” said Erin K. Lipp, UGA associate professor of environmental health science. “In the U.S., infections generally arise through the consumption of undercooked shellfish or through direct exposure of wounds to seawater. In some cases, eye and ear infections are associated with ocean swimming as well.”

Lipp said cases of Vibrio vulnificus have been steadily rising, but overall rates are low. Between 1988 and 2006, the CDC received reports of more than 900 Vibrio vulnificus infections from the Gulf Coast states. While infection is rare, V. vulnificus has high rates of mortality.

“V. vulnificus is the most potentially fatal of the group. It is most threatening for those who are immunocompromised or have a history of liver illness,” said Lipp. “The best protection is to consider avoiding raw oysters in warm months and avoiding seawater exposure to open wounds, especially if you are in a high risk group,” Lipp said.

“I would advise people visiting the coast to wear wading shoes if they are going in the water, especially in muddy areas, and gloves if they are handling anything sharp,” Hollibaugh said. “Abrasions are particularly good points of entry for the pathogen so be careful handling barnacle-covered ropes and the like. If you have cuts or abrasions, especially on your feet, you might want to just stay one the beach and not go in the water. If you do go for a swim, take a shower, preferably with chlorinated water, as soon as you get out.”

Contact information for experts to comment on flesh-eating bacteria is listed below. For more information, contact UGA News Service at 706-542-8083 or UGA Marine Extension also has information on Vibrio vulnificus at, which provides information on this bacteria for consumers, healthcare providers, industry members, fishermen and educators.

James T. Hollibaugh
Distinguished Research Professor, Department of Marine Sciences, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
Hollibaugh is an expert on microbial activity in the sea.

Erin K. Lipp
Associate Professor of Environmental Health Science, College of Public Health

Lipp is an expert on the ecology of human pathogens in coastal waters and oceans and human health.

Tori Stivers
Seafood specialist, Marine Extension