Steve Gilpatrick, a 58-year-old Texan, went for a swim only to be struck by flesh-eating bacteria. Even after three surgeries, he is still in danger of losing a life, possibly even his life.
Steve Gilpatrick is fighting necrotizing fasciitis, a tissue-destroying disease caused by a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus. The retired oil company marketing consultant also is suffering from multiple organ failure because the disease has caused a blood infection, his physician said Tuesday.
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The bacterium thrives in warm salt water and is most prevalent during summer months. Gilpatrick's wife, Linda, said she and her husband routinely vacation in Galveston County's Crystal Beach each summer.
"I've heard of flesh-eating bacteria, but it always seemed so far away," she said from a waiting room at Galveston's John Sealy Hospital. "It's not. It's here."
Swimmers with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients or people with liver disease, are most susceptible to the disease. To be contracted through contaminated water, the bacteria need a point of entry, such as an open wound.
Gilpatrick, who is diabetic, had an ulcer on his lower leg that he believed was nearly healed when he went swimming during a fishing trip on July 8, his wife said. His leg became infected three days later and he began running a high fever, spurring them to head for the emergency room.
"We figured he had some type of infection," Linda Gilpatrick said. "But we didn't, of course, realize the extent of it."
Doctors quickly diagnosed the problem. Diseases caused by Vibrio vulnificus are rare, but most cases occur along the Gulf Coast, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The bacterium also can infect people who eat contaminated seafood and causes nearly all seafood-related deaths in the United States, the agency says.
While everyone who eats seafood should be aware of the risk of infection, healthy swimmers don't need to worry, said Dr. Robert Atmar, a professor at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine who specializes in infectious disease.
"I wouldn't alter (swimming) activities based on this, if you're otherwise healthy," he said. "People who have chronic illnesses like diabetes or steroids or cancer or chronic liver disease, if they have open wounds or sores, shouldn't go wading in the Gulf during the summer."
There also is a risk of death in patients whose Vibrio vulnificus infection spreads to the blood, as it has in Gilpatrick's case, said his physician, Dr. David Herndon, who is chief of burn services and professor of surgery at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
Herndon said he sees about one case of necrotizing fasciitis, which can be caused by several bacteria, each month. But Vibrio vulnificus infections are not as common, he said, noting that John Sealy Hospital receives only two or three cases in a year.
The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 54 cases of Vibrio vulnificus infection in 2006. At least 16 were caused by water contact.