Galveston County health officials say it is safe to go in the water.
It turns out, the flesh-eating bacteria reported in the news media this month was never the danger for the population at large that it seemed to be.
Galveston County health officials have fielded hundreds of calls about flesh-eating bacterial infections – first, a Jacinto City man who got sick waited four days to go to the hospital and wound up losing a leg. Another person who was exposed became sick but did not suffer such extreme health consequences.
Vibrio bacteria is always present at some level, and Scott Packard, a spokesman for the Galveston County Health District, says there’s no testing program required by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Vibrio bacteria is naturally present in salt and brackish water. So if you’ve ever been to the Gulf of Mexico – anywhere along the Gulf of Mexico whether it’s in Texas or any of the states in between here and Florida, or an ocean on the East or West Coast, you’ve probably been exposed to the Vibrio bacteria. And you probably didn’t have a negative reaction.”
Packard says Vibrio poses very little problem for people who swim unless they have a weakened immune system or an open wound.
However, there is an EPA threshold for a different bacterium.
“Those signs that warn of an elevated bacteria level are not related to Vibrio or flesh-eating bacteria. Those are related to Texas Beach Watch.”
The website posts results of 52 test sites up and down the Galveston Coast for enterococcus, which can cause illness at high levels, and levels have been higher with recent rains.
“Enterococcus bacteria is naturally present in the gut of mammals and humans. Typically what occurs is after it floods or it rains, all that water washes pet waste, cattle waste and some sewage overflows into rivers and streams and eventually out into the Gulf of Mexico.”
Enterococcus levels on Galveston Island were very low Thursday, but heavy rains could trigger higher levels.
As for flesh-eating bacteria, Galveston health officials say people are more likely to acquire Vibrio from eating raw seafood or being cut while fishing than from swimming.
Advisories for anyplace on a Texas beach are online at TexasBeachWatch.com.