FORT MYERS, Fla. — A 56-year-old Polk County man is dead after contracting a rare type of flesh-destroying bacterial infection during a recent fishing trip to Estero Bay, according to his family.
Richard Corley, a father of one from Winter Haven, likely contracted Vibrio vulnificus while wade fishing shortly after cutting his leg on Sept. 27, said his brother, Brian Corley. The infection, which initially resembled a bug bite, caused his leg to become blistered and swollen within a day.
Doctors in Winter Haven performed surgery in an attempt to halt the infection’s spread, family members said. But it was not enough: Corley died Sept. 30.
“It moved pretty quick,” Brian Corely said. “I’ve never seen anything so bad in all my life. It just went from his legs to his stomach to his back. On his last night it started moving to his face and his head.”
Corley, a long-distance trucker and an avid outdoorsman, was fishing with two of his friends, neither of whom were infected, Brian Corley said. They had made regular trips to the area for the last 20 or so years without incident, he said.
Florida has seen 37 such infections this year, a dozen of which resulted in death, according to the state Department of Health.
Vibrio vulnificus is naturally present in warm, brackish waters and is part of a group of vibrios that are called “halophilic” because they require salt, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People typically become infected by eating contaminated seafood or by exposing open wounds to bacteria-infested warm seawater, experts said.
The bacterium is in the same family as those that cause cholera. About 85% of infections occur May through October, according to the CDC.
Healthy people usually experience milder symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Those with underlying medical conditions, such as liver disease, are as much as 80 times more likely to develop more serious blood-stream infections, half of which are fatal, the health department warns.
Its most serious symptoms include infections causing the tissue to breakdown — a condition known medically as “necrotizing fasciitis” that can lead to limb amputation.
“If you have an open wound and you go into salt water, there is the possibility of contracting the bacteria in that wound,” said Scott Sjoblom, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Polk County. “But if you’re a healthy person, and you have a good immune system and practice good hygiene and proper wound care, your chances of getting necrotizing fasciitis are extremely low.”
Richard Corley was generally healthy, Brian Corley said. But doctors told the family he may have shown some early signs of liver disease, he said.
The department did not announce his death, nor did it identify Corley by name. But it did confirm that such a case had involved a Polk County man. Rather, Corley’s family reached out to a Tampa-area news outlet as a way of warning the public.
Corley said he thinks public health officials should do a better job of educating people about the risks of going into the water. He said he would like to see posted signs stating as much on boat ramps and beaches during the summer months.
“I’m not mad because he died. I’m hurt because he died,” Brian Corley said. “But I think there needs to be more awareness. They do signs for manatees and no wake zones and different stuff like that.”
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