There's still plenty of time this summer to enjoy the coast or the beach, whether it's along the Gulf Coast or the Caribbean. Before heading out, the Louisiana Department of Health (DHH) wants to warn travelers, beachgoers and fishermen about two diseases, Vibrio vulnificus and the chikungunya virus.  

Vibrio vulnificus

Louisiana's warm gulf waters are inviting, but may pose a risk for individuals with chronic liver disease or weakened immune systems. Vibrio vulnificus, one of the flesh-eating bacteria, has infected eight people in Louisiana this summer. The infections occur by exposing open wounds or cuts to warm seawater or brackish (briny) water, or by eating raw shellfish. This bacteria is commonly found in seawater and shellfish throughout the world, and is more abundant during the summer months. Louisiana typically reports five to 15 cases each year. The bacteria can invade the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness with symptoms like fever, chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock) and blistering skin lesions. Other symptoms may include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain or fever.

"Don't wait, seek medical care immediately, rather than later, if you have symptoms after exposure to brackish or saltwater," said State Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry. "The key to recovery is getting treatment quickly."

The LDH offers the following tips for reducing your risk.

  • Keep brackish and salt water away from open wounds.
  • There may be a risk associated with consuming raw shellfish. If you suffer from chronic illness of the liver, kidney failure or have other immune disorders, or if you're going through or have been through chemotherapy, have used steroids for a long time or are using antacids, you should eat these products fully cooked.
  • Avoid cross contaminating ready-to-eat foods with raw shellfish and its juices.
  • Avoid skin punctures or seafood dripping on skin when handling raw shellfish, including oyster shells, shrimp and crabs.

Chikungunya Virus

LDH is also encouraging travelers headed to the Caribbean to "Fight the Bite" in the same manner they would protect themselves against the West Nile virus. Mosquitoes in the Caribbean may transmit the chikungunya virus (CHIKV) to residents and tourists. It's also being spread in parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. LDH has placed posters in most Louisiana airports and the sea port of New Orleans to warn returning travelers to get medical attention if they think they are infected.

"If you have travelled to the Caribbean or any other areas that have had chikungunya virus outbreaks and have symptoms, seek medical attention immediately, notify your physician of your travel history and  avoid mosquito bites," said State Epidemiologist Dr. Raoult Ratard.  "To prevent further spread of the virus, it is important for people to avoid mosquito bites during the first week of illness."

The virus causes fever and joint pains within three to seven days after being bitten by an infected mosquito. Other symptoms can include muscle aches, headaches, joint swelling or rash. Chikungunya disease very rarely results in death, but the symptoms can be severe and disabling. Most people feel better within a week. In some, the joint pain may persist for months. It is not spread person to person. There is no vaccine and no specific treatment for infection.

So far this year, 584 infections have been reported in the United States, of which 580 occurred in other countries. Only four cases were domestically transmitted, all in Florida. Louisiana has confirmed eight travel-related cases. The District of Colombia and all but eight states are reporting travel-related chikungunya cases.

When traveling to countries with chikungunya outbreaks, it is important to protect yourself from mosquito bites by taking the following precautions.

  • Use air conditioning or window/door screens to keep mosquitoes outside. If you are not able to protect yourself from mosquitoes inside your home or hotel, sleep under a mosquito bed net.
  • Help reduce the number of mosquitoes outside your home or hotel room by emptying standing water from containers such as flowerpots or buckets.
  • When weather permits, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Use insect repellents.
    • Repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, and oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol products provide long-lasting protection.
    • If you use both sunscreen and insect repellent, apply the sunscreen first and then the repellent. 
    • Do not spray repellent on the skin under your clothing.
    • Treat clothing with permethrin or purchase permethrin-treated clothing.
    • Always follow the label instructions when using insect repellent or sunscreen.

Your best protection is avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

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