Waterman warns of Delaware Bay bacterial infection

Started with a splinter, but battle lasted a year
July 5, 2019

South Bowers resident Lonny Hurd can't wait to get off the antibiotics he's been on for a year since a bacteria from the Delaware Bay entered his bloodstream.

He blames it on a splinter.

“I dug it like you usually do and put Mercurochrome on, and thought I had it cured,” said Hurd, 75.

A waterman and avid fisherman, he went out on the bay with his wife, just like the two have done for decades.

Two weeks later, his right ring finger began to swell. Hurd said he went to his doctor, who cut into the finger thinking it was an abscess. Inside was a jelly-like substance. The doctor put Hurd on an antibiotic, but in another two weeks the swelling had spread to his wrist. He ended up in surgery in Dover where a swollen section of skin was removed. About two months later, Hurd said, a biopsy of the tissue determined it was a bacteria fairly common among watermen, fishermen and crabbers. The strain he got was not flesh-eating, but one that stays close to the skin, he said.

After a new antibiotic that he's now been on for seven months, Hurd said, he was on the mend until February when he noticed a lump along his clavicle joint near his throat. A surgeon removed the lump, thinking it was cancer, he said, only to discover it was hardened bacteria that had been killed by the antibiotic.

Hurd said he's hoping his doctor takes him off the antibiotic soon, since it makes him sensitive to the sun and has curtailed his outdoor hobbies. He said he will never again go in the bay with an open sore.

“All my life I've been on the Delaware Bay, and I never expected this to happen,” he said. “This has been such a long, drawn-out ordeal.”

He said he's not risking getting another splinter, and he removed all wooden material on his deck and railings, and replaced it with manmade material. “It's all gone,” he said.

Hurd said doctors told him there are five or six bacteria that thrive in waters around Delaware – including the flesh-eating bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, making headlines this summer.

Detecting Vibrio

Dr. Scott Olewiler of Beebe Healthcare’s infectious diseases unit said people get Vibrio by swimming in water with an open wound, or by consuming raw or undercooked shellfish, such as oysters and crabs. Vibrio produces a dangerous, even fatal, infection.

Vibrio is a waterborne bacteria found in brackish seawater, particularly bays, including Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay. He said over the past two years, Beebe has had eight cases that involved Vibrio, identified through blood tests. Of those cases, he said, four involved gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea; one or two were wound infections and the others produced influenza-like symptoms. 

Vibrio causes a very serious infection, he said. For people who are infected while swimming, symptoms include redness of the skin and purplish spots or bubbles underneath the skin near the wound. Symptoms begin within 24 hours of exposure, Olewiler said. People who show symptoms should go to the emergency room as soon as possible. 

While there are different kinds of Vibrio bacteria, the two most common are parahaemolyticus, which is more benign and easier to treat, and vulnificus, which often results in death, especially in people with pre-existing liver or kidney disease, Olewiler said. 

Preventing infection

Olewiler said Vibrio flourishes at water temperatures of 68 to 70 degrees. People should not go into warmer bay waters, and if you do get a cut or scrape, get out of the water and treat the wound quickly.  If you see red spots within 12 hours, go to the emergency room. 

More importantly, Olewiler said, do not eat raw shellfish, and make sure shellfish are fully cooked. Steaming or boiling crabs or other shellfish will kill the bacteria, but freezing or refrigerating crab meat will not, he said. Olewiler said people should also not eat uncooked crab meat or raw oysters.

Olewiler also warned people should thoroughly wash their cutting boards immediately if using them to cut raw seafood. 

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter