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Conn. health officials warn of wound infections from LI Sound waters

Talinn Kim, 5, of Stony Brook, fills his

Talinn Kim, 5, of Stony Brook, fills his bucket with water, as others wade into the cool waters of Long Island Sound at Sunken Meadow State Park in July 2019. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Five Connecticut residents were hospitalized this summer with serious infections caused by dangerous bacteria in shoreline areas of the Long Island Sound, state Heath Department officials warned.

Four men and one woman were diagnosed, one in July and four others in August, with the rare but potentially fatal Vibrio vulnificus infection, according the state's Department of Public Health. The patients were 49-85 years old, officials said.

"The identification of these five cases over two months is very concerning," said Dr. Matthew Cartter, state epidemiologist for the Connecticut Health Department. "This suggests the Vibrio bacteria may be present in salt or brackish water in or near Long Island Sound, and people should take precautions."

Two cases of Vibrio vulnificus were reported in New York this year, but neither were associated with local waterways, said State Health Department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond.

"As Vibriosis often occurs from eating or handling raw or undercooked shellfish, DOH investigates these cases to determine if there is a common source of exposure," Hammond said.

Christopher Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, called Vibrio vulnificus a "new find" for the Long Island region, with the species more prevalent in warmer aquatic temperatures south of New York, including the Chesapeake Bay.

"So we can now add this to the list of aquatic microbes that we're worried about," Gobler said. "We certainly need to take it seriously but we need more information in regards to its distribution."

In all five Connecticut cases, patients reported exposure to salt or brackish water — a mix of fresh and salt water — while swimming, crabbing or boating. All five had preexisting wounds or sustained new wounds which led to the infections, officials said.

Two patients developed septicemia, an infection of the bloodstream, while the other three had serious wound infections. No deaths were reported.

Vibrio vulnificus infection is rare, with only seven cases reported in Connecticut between 2010 and 2019, officials said.

Many people with Vibrio vulnificus require intensive care or limb amputations, and about 20% die, often within a day or two of becoming ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some Vibrio vulnificus infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, often known as "flesh eating bacteria," a severe infection in which the flesh around an open wound dies.

Those at the greatest risk for illness include those with weakened immune systems and the elderly.

The CDC advises people with an open wound to stay out of saltwater or brackish water, including wading at the beach, or at a minimum to cover the wound with a waterproof bandage. Wounds should then be washed with soap and water.