GULFPORT, Miss. — René Olier went fishing June 5 just the way he had for 50 years. He stopped to get live bait and set out for an area south of Cat Island.
The 63-year-old returned about 2:30 p.m. feeling fine, his wife, Linda Olier, said, but woke up in the night with chills. Probably just from being in the sun all day, they thought.
The next morning, though, he started having gastrointestinal distress and pain near the hand he'd used to scoop bait. Probably from all the horse flies, he thought. She went to get Benadryl from a nearby store and by the time she got back his arm was visibly swollen.
The Gulfport couple went to an urgent care clinic near their Shoreline Park camp house, then the emergency room at Hancock Medical Center. Linda Olier said a doctor who examined the swelling suspected an infection from a type of fast-acting bacteria called Vibrio, which has strains that cause cholera or illness after eating undercooked seafood.
Vibrio vulnificus, the so-called flesh-eating bacteria, is a strain occurring naturally in the Gulf of Mexico that breaks down waste matter, including oil. It proliferates in the summer when the water is warm and salinity high. Vibrio is not the same as bacteria that increase from pollution or sewage, and therefore is not necessarily more likely to be present in areas where there is a water-quality warning.
Unfortunately, the Vibrio bacteria breaks down whatever is in its path, in this case René Olier's arm.
Luckily, the Oliers' daughter had written a Facebook post about his condition. A friend, whose father lost his leg to Vibrio after getting cut on a crab trap, was able to recommend a doctor.
René Olier was transferred to Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, where the affected tissue was removed. But by the next morning, his organs were failing.
"(The doctor) said he's not gonna live through the night unless we amputate his arm," Linda Olier said, but the procedure saved his life.
"It was the most frightening experience we've ever been through," she said.
They feel lucky, though, after hearing about an Ocean Springs man who died Friday of a Vibrio infection. The state Department of Health confirmed the death Tuesday.
"It was eerily similar to what had happened to my husband," she said.
René Olier said he had never heard of the bacteria before last month.
"We want people to be careful, it's out there," he said.
The state has had seven cases of Vibrio infections this year, including all the strains except the one that causes cholera.
Singing River Health System has seen three cases in the past few weeks, but Dr. David Spencer, medical director of wound care and hyperbaric medicine, said that's not unusual for this time of year.
"Most cases are seen in the warmer months of the summer season due to more people accessing the Gulf and estuary waters, increasing the risk of contact and infections," he said. "This is not a phenomenon only of Gulf Coast states as there are cases in any area of the U.S. with saltwater coasts and water access."
Most healthy immune systems can fight off a Vibrio attack, especially if caught early, but any sort of illness or health condition — untreated high blood pressure or diabetes, cancer, drug or alcohol addiction — can make it easier for the bacteria to spread.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people with compromised immune systems, especially liver disease, avoid "exposure of open wounds or broken skin to warm salt or brackish water, and avoid consuming undercooked shellfish harvested from such waters."
Illness begins within one to three days of exposure to Vibrio vulnificus, but as late as seven and rapidly, according to the center. Symptoms include fever; low blood pressure; swelling and redness on arms or legs with blood-tinged blisters; and swelling, redness and pain at a wound site.
Another common type of Vibrio that is most commonly ingested, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, typically causes watery diarrhea with abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and fever.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records show Mississippi had 17 reported cases of Vibrio infections in 2012. Louisiana had 52 reported cases; Florida, 145; and Alabama, 20. In 2013, Mississippi had 12 reported cases and Florida had 41. Figures were not available for Louisiana and Alabama.