Will Bacterial Plague Follow Crude Oil Spill Along Gulf Coast?, New York Times (Greenwire), June 17, 2010:
Some bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico love eating oil as much as they like infecting humans. ... One of the more pressing questions involves Vibrio... vulnificus... this year there is a likely possibility, scientists say, that Vibrio growth could be further spurred, directly or indirectly, in response to the oil and the organic flotsam it has left behind.
What is Vibrio vulnificus? Report: Houston man's death linked to flesh-eating bacteria, 11 News KHOU (Houston), September 22, 2010:
DOH: Six Die from Deadly Saltwater Bacteria, WONO (Orlando), September 14, 2010:
The Department of Health (DOH) said on Tuesday that six deaths have occurred this year as a result of a deadly bacteria, at least two of them from raw oyster consumption. Known as Vibrio vulnificus, the bacteria infects the body in two ways, either by exposure to contaminated seafood or through an open wound exposed to contaminated seawater. DOH said that the other four deaths remain under investigation as to the source of the exposure. DOH is warning Floridians to avoid eating raw oysters and exposing open wounds to seawater and estuarine water.
The following experts were interviewed by the New York Times:
Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation and an expert in marine microbial life:
"The question is: Will there be an inadvertent enhancement of the growth of these potential human pathogens... It's a question, and the answer is uncertain."
Jay Grimes, marine microbiologist at the University of Southern Mississippi:
[After] recently examined an oiled water sample... likely exposed to dispersant [that] was finely divided... Grimes discovered several microbes attached to the droplet. Now glowing blue, they had been gorging. At least one was a Vibrio. ...
Jim Oliver, a Vibrio specialist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte:
"They are coastal bacteria ... so [they] could well increase either as a direct result of oil degradation or as a side effect of the added nutrient levels."
The ingredients are there for heightened concern, Oliver added. The carcasses of bacteria feeding off the oil will increase overall nutrient levels as sweltering summer temperatures hit their peak. While there are natural controls, like bacterial viruses and protozoa, that can check Vibrio growth, those can be overwhelmed, studies have shown. ... "I think that combination could lead to very serious public health concerns," Oliver said. ...
Doug Bartlett, a microbiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography:
"If the oil is killing all these marine animals and if the marine animals are highly compromised, would they be more likely to succumb to infectious disease?... I honestly don't know what is going to happen with regard to the oil spill... It's very likely in the heavily impacted areas to have a strong influence on the composition of microbial communities. But gosh, I just don't have a good sense of where that all is going to go. ... The lesson from that is that under high nutrient conditions, it may be that the Vibrio numbers would go up."
In fact, the National Science Foundation awarded a rapid response grant to research this very topic, From the NSF website on June 21, 2010:
How are the oysters faring with the oil spill? The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a rapid response grant to scientists Crystal Johnson, Gary King and Ed Laws of Louisiana State University (LSU) to find out.
The researchers will look at how the abundance and virulence of naturally-occurring bacteria called Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus, often found in oyster beds, may change in response to the spill.
The findings will provide insights into vibrios' ability to "consume" oil, and will allow the biologists to uncover antibiotic compounds in certain species of phytoplankton that live in association with vibrios.
"Adaptation to the spilled oil may result in an increase in some types of vibrios," says Johnson. "We believe that vibrios will change in response to the stress of direct exposure to oil and/or to indirect effects of interactions with other species affected by oil."
Vibrios... may even help break down the components of the oil.
"Little is known about how microbes--in the water, along coasts, and associated with other species--are affected by the spill," says Phillip Taylor, acting director of NSF's Ocean Sciences Division.
"Through this NSF rapid response grant, these scientists will be able to track the oil's effects on marine species living in the Gulf, and by extension, the possible threat to human health." ...
"Oil-induced changes in phytoplankton community composition and their associated bacterial communities are related to changes in vibrio abundance," he says. Some species of phytoplankton in Louisiana and Mississippi coastal waters may excrete antibiotics that inhibit the growth of vibrios, according to Laws.
Here is an account from a recent Vibrio vulnificus survivor, The Tale of Vibrio Vulnificus, Florida Marine Times, June 18, 2010:
[V]ibrio vulnificus... caused an infection in my lower left leg that resulted in a condition called cellulites [sic]. In other cases it can cause serious gastrointestinal tract infections, causing a variety of conditions from nausea to diarrhea, and worse. ...
There was water in my dinghy and when I flipped it back over after emptying it, I got a very small scratch [from a barnacle] approximately an inch long and maybe a twentieth of an inch wide. That was eight in the morning. By four in the afternoon my leg had started hurting around the scratch and became inflamed. An area the size of a softball had become Corvette red and throbbed like a marching band playing rap. I treated it with peroxide and Neosporin and figured I would stay on top of it. ...
Wound infections typically begin just as mine did. There is swelling, redness, and very intense pain…emphasis on the pain. Next comes blistering, and, yes, they look much like a burn blister, only redder, and, believe it or not, much more painful. The really scary part about those blisters is they are the first stage of a process that parallels gangrene. Even more scary is that fifty percent of the patients require a course of action of debridement (deep scrubbing of the tissue…can you imagine scrubbing an area already intensely painful?), or worse yet, but frequently, amputation. ...
[T]he CDC called... saying, “You should be glad just to have your leg.”
According to Galveston Daily News, "Officials are unable to confirm whether a woman’s death last week was caused by Vibrio vulnificus, a saltwater strain of flesh-eating bacteria." Yet, the woman "57, of Port Bolivar, died Sept. 7 of necrotizing fasciitis, according to the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office. Necrotizing fasciitis is a condition caused by several kinds of so-called “flesh-eating” bacteria, including Vibrio, which is common in warm salt water worldwide.":
Updated with additional video: