Is it safe to swim? Waterborne worries have some swimmers puzzled

July 1, 2016
By Marcy Shortuse

Recent media reports on the news and on Facebook have given way to more worries for people who love to swim in the Gulf and leave them wondering: Is it safe to go in the water? According to local officials, if you don’t have open wounds and a compromised immune system, you are more than likely going to be all right.
There are several types of bacteria that live in the very warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. One of them, Vibrio vulnificus, is a warm saltwater bacterium that made national headlines in the last few years after several infections were reported around the state. It is fatal approximately 50 percent of the time, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. But there would be no indication of an increase in occurrences of Vibrio infection in the NDRC report, as water monitoring programs included in that report do not include tests for it. That’s because it’s in the water much of the time. Vv is a common bacterium and thrives in saltwater when it becomes warmer than 70 degrees.
In Southwest Florida, as well as other gulf coast states, that means Vv is out there most of the year, yet infection rates remain low. According to a paper published in 1999 by the Department of Health, Bureau of Epidemiology, they are halophilic, or salt loving, bacilli found in marine environments. They colonize filter-feeding animals such as oysters, crabs and mussels, and they can also be found floating freely in the water. According to the Florida Department of Health, from 2008 through 2012, there were 133 cases reported statewide, an average of 27 per year.
During the same period, there were 44 deaths, which means about 33 percent of the cases during that period were fatal. In 2013, there were 41 cases reported statewide, with 11 fatalities, and in 2014, as of July 25, there were 11, with two fatalities.
According to the CDC, in healthy individuals, ingestion of Vv can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, but for those with certain immune problems, especially chronic liver disease, Vv can infect the bloodstream and become fatal. Sea lice have also been encountered lately in Southwest Florida waters. There are actually two kinds – a type of sea lice that live on fish and a type that are actually the microscopic larvae of jellyfish. It’s the second one that makes people squirm.
When there are jellyfish larvae in the water, swimmers can experience a rash or small blisters under their swimming suits – also known as sea-bather/s eruuption or pika pika – and can even have a fever, chills and nausea. You can scrape affected areas with a credit card, then soak in hot water. Bathing suits should be washed and immersed in household vinegar or rubbing alcohol before another use.