Folks headed to Gulf Coast beaches this holiday weekend may want to stay tuned for water quality alerts.
Double red flags are flying across much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a harmful bloom of green-blue algae has closed 19 Mississippi beach stations in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties. As of Wednesday afternoon, two beach stations east of the Pascagoula River remain open.
The sand is open on the closed beaches, but people and pets should stay out of the water and not consume fish or seafood taken from the near shore areas, said Robbie Wilbur, communications director for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. Exposure to blue-green algae can cause rashes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps.
The algal bloom is related to the opening of the Bonnet Carre spillway to relieve flooding along the Mississippi River, said MDEQ field services division chief Steven Bailey.
“Fresh water feeds the bloom,” Bailey said.
The public can receive real time alerts by email and text message on advisories and beach closings in Mississippi. The alerts go out when advisories are issued and when they are lifted, Wilbur said.
Currently, Alabama and Florida beaches have no advisories related to harmful algal bloom or enterococci bacteria. However, there are naturally occurring bacteria, like vibrio, that can cause serious illness. The vibrio bacteria – also called the “flesh-eating” bacteria – is most active in summer, when it can proliferate quickly in warm waters. Vibrio is the same bacteria that can cause people to become very ill after consuming affected oysters.
“For most people, (vibrio) does not cause any problems,” said Mississippi state epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byars. However, people with diabetes, chronic liver disease and compromised immune systems are at risk if they swim or wade with an open cuts or wounds.
Kenny Cross of Lackey in Monroe County said he contracted bacteria from swimming in the Gulf of Mexico during a trip to Orange Beach, Alabama. He was hospitalized at Northeast Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo for 15 days with a right leg swollen to three times its normal size.
When people do get sick with vibrio, the infection can move very quickly, Byars said. People can go from feeling well to being critically ill in a day. It can also be fatal. A 77-year-old Florida woman died last week after falling during a walk on a beach and becoming infected by a scrape on her leg.
Byars advises people in high risk groups to avoid the Gulf waters, especially if they have open wounds. If wounds become hot to the touch or red, people should seek medical care directly.
“Anybody can get a bacterial infection with an open wound,” Byars said. “The world is not sterile; the water is not sterile.”
The health department has not received any reports of outbreaks related to the algal bloom, Byars said. The vibrio cases are following normal patterns for this time of year.
“We’ve had a handful of vibrio cases this year, but it’s not unexpected,” Byars said.