The river bacteria that contributed to the death of a Mechanicsville man last week has been identified as Vibrio vulnificus, a health official said.
Charlie Horner, 75, died after a cut from a catfish barb became infected with the bacteria Saturday at the Rappahannock River in Essex County. His leg was amputated Monday to stall the spread of the infection, but he died two days later.
Horner’s was the first death of 2015 reported in Virginia attributed to Vibrio vulnificus. There have been 17 cases so far this year, five of which were from wound infections, according to preliminary state data.
Human cases are rare, but health departments say residents can take steps to prevent infection.
The Virginia Department of Health receives a small number of reports of the bacteria each year, said Thomas Franck, the director of the Chickahominy Health District.
Vibrio vulnificus naturally occurs in brackish and salt water, especially during the warmer months, including in parts of the James River as it mixes with salt water from the Chesapeake Bay. Its prevalence peaks in July because the bacteria replicates faster in warmer water. It can enter the bloodstream through open wounds or cuts, or when a person eats contaminated shellfish.
Up to 11 cases of Vibrio vulnificus were confirmed by the Virginia Department of Health in 2014, and eight in each of the two years prior. Nationwide, there are about 95 cases, 85 hospitalizations and 35 deaths each year for Vibrio vulnificus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Adding in other types of Vibrio bacteria, there were an average of 34 cases of infection each year in Virginia from 2009 to 2013. An average of 12 per year were from wound infections and most of the others from ingesting shellfish with the bacteria. During the same five-year period, 10 people died of a Vibrio infection.
Infections from Vibrio vulnificus are fatal about 50 percent of the time, according to the CDC. Most cases occur in the Gulf Coast states.
“There’s no way for someone to look at the water and tell there’s Vibrio. We just have to assume it’s present in brackish or salt water,” Franck said. “If they have an open wound, they really need to stay out of the water.”
Older age groups and those with chronic diseases are at a higher risk for death from vibriosis because of a decreased immune system, Franck said. Signs of infection include increased redness, swelling or pain in the wounded area. Fever and chills are also symptoms, along with pus coming from the wound.
Wearing swim shoes when wading in water and wearing gloves while handling fish can help prevent infection, Franck said. Health organizations also caution against eating raw or undercooked shellfish.
If a cut occurs while in brackish or salt water, the wound should be flushed with high-pressure sterile water or saline and bandaged before seeking medical attention.
Charlie Horner was known to many as a servant leader who steered clear of the limelight and rarely said no to friends and strangers in need.