According to the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania State Office for Health and Social Affairs (Lagus), a 74-year-old man died after a vibrio infection. The star reported. Vibrios are bacteria, some species of which can also be dangerous to humans and cause illness. These bacteria occur naturally in sea and brackish water. At water temperatures of more than 20 degrees Celsius, the bacteria multiply rapidly.

Vibrios can cause infections that, in very rare cases, are fatal. In the 2023 bathing season, four Vibrio infections and one death have been reported in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. According to Lagus, a total of ten infections were reported in 2022. The most important questions and answers about vibrios:

Vibrios are rod-shaped bacteria. They occur naturally in saline sea water (e.g. coastal waters, saline inland waters, bays, brackish water). The bacterium is “salt-loving” and occurs in waters whose salt concentration is not too high – such as in the Baltic Sea, as the Schleswig-Holstein Ministry of Health and Lagus inform.

The bacterium, which occurs in water, can be distinguished from the Vibrio strains that cause cholera, informs the US health authority CDC. There is one species in particular that is potentially dangerous to humans in the Baltic Sea: Vibrio vulnificus. The vibrios multiply rapidly from a water temperature of 20 degrees Celsius and a salt content of 0.5 percent. Lagus reports that these conditions particularly apply to the German North and Baltic Seas in warm summers.

So people have a low risk of becoming infected with Vibrio vulnificus when bathing in sea water if they have an open wound on their body. Through them the bacteria can enter the body. The Schleswig-Holstein Ministry of Health explains that transmission can occur through superficial and small wounds.

Infection with vibrios is also possible in a second way: Anyone who eats raw or improperly cooked fish, mussels, crabs or oysters can become infected with the bacteria through food. The Schleswig-Holstein Ministry of Health reports that the seafood from the North and Baltic Seas that is to be consumed will therefore be checked. Infection via food plays an important role in warmer climates.

According to Lagus, an infection with vibrios via a wound usually becomes noticeable after 12 to 72 hours. Anyone who becomes infected with Vibrio vulnificus through a wound may notice pain in the wound area as an early symptom, which appears disproportionately strong compared to the visible wound, writes the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). According to the RKI, if the infection is not treated properly, “deep necrosis” (death of cells, local death of tissue) can form. The infection can also lead to fever, chills and severe blood poisoning (sepsis). Severe illnesses can be fatal.

According to the RKI, an infection caused by eating raw fish or seafood results in vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and cramping abdominal pain. Chills and fever may also occur. In severe cases, blood poisoning can also occur.

After swimming in the sea, swimmers should closely monitor inflamed areas of skin. If you even suspect a wound infection, you should see a doctor immediately. When visiting the doctor, patients should point out that they have bathed in the sea and that a vibrio infection is possible, Lagus informs.

Rapid treatment is very important because of the rapid progression of the infection and can be life-saving, says Lagus. As a rule, an infection that is detected early can be treated with antibiotics. In some cases, surgical treatment of the wound may also be necessary. In the case of an infection with vibrios, quick treatment can save lives.

Anyone can get a wound infection from vibrios, but there are people who are at higher risk of infection and complications, writes the US CDC.

The risk group includes older people with weakened immune systems. People with chronic illnesses such as liver disease, alcohol addiction or diabetes are included in the risk group in the Lagus bathing information. Immunocompromised people also have an increased risk – for example people who take medication to prevent organ rejection after an organ transplant. The RKI warns that people with cancer and people with serious heart disease have an increased risk of becoming infected with vibrios and becoming seriously ill.

According to Lagus, healthy young children are not at increased risk of becoming infected with vibrios when swimming in the sea, even if they are more likely to have small wounds. “It is also not known that there is an increased risk for healthy pregnant women,” it continues.

Anyone who has an open or poorly healing wound should avoid contact with (warm) sea water – this particularly applies to those with previous illnesses and people with a weakened immune system, advises the Schleswig-Holstein Ministry of Health. Even small, superficial wounds can serve as a portal of entry for the vibrios. Even if you have a fresh piercing, a fresh tattoo or a recent operation, contact with salt and brackish water should be avoided. A wound can also be protected with a waterproof bandage or plaster, advises the US health authority CDC.

The CDC advises that you should also avoid eating raw oysters and nuts to protect yourself from infection with vibrios. In addition, wounds and cuts should always be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water if they have come into contact with salt water, brackish water, raw seafood or their juices.

The Lagus advises people in the risk group to be careful, even in cooler water temperatures. Although the proliferation of Vibrio vulnificus will then decrease, one cannot assume that the seawater is free of the pathogen.

Sources: CDC Vibrions, CDC Vibrio vulnificus, RKI, Lagus death notification, Lagus numbers for the 2023 bathing season, Lagus numbers for the 2022 bathing season, Lagus FAQ, Lagus bathing information, Lagus Vibrions, Schleswig-Holstein Ministry of Health Vibrions