Pinellas County boat captain develops necrotizing fasciitis from vibrio vulnificus

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A Pinellas County boat captain is in the hospital fighting a mean bacterial infection, sometimes called flesh-eating bacteria or necrotizing fasciitis. 

George Billiris says he was fishing with his grandson July 22 in the Gulf of Mexico, near the Pinellas-Pasco line. July 23 he went to Mease Countryside Hospital and hasn't left since.  

A day after the fishing trip, he was on his charter boat when he noticed pain near a healing scab. That lead to chills, fever, and blistering.

"It is not something you think about until it hits you," he said. "Thank God I have family who cared enough to rush me off quickly."

After a bevy of tests, doctors figured out he had contracted vibrio vulnificus, which is present in some brackish and ocean waterways.

Billiris is on antibiotics and believes they have successfully reversed the effects of the nasty bacteria.

"If I didn't get treatment, I'd probably be dead," he said.

While the state does not track all forms of disease-causing bacteria, it does track vibrio vulnificus infections.

In 2017, there were 50 confirmed cases and 11 deaths. Last year, there were 42 confirmed cases and nine deaths.

This year, through July 12, there were 10 cases reported statewide, but no deaths.

However, since then, a Tennessee man died after contracting vibrio vulnificus in Okalossa County, according to his daughter.

There have also been a number of cases of necrotizing fasciitis, which can be caused by other bacteria and pathogens. 

An Ellenton woman named Lynn Fleming died last month

Since spring, several others have survived, including a Citrus County man swimming in the panhandle, whose doctor said his infection was caused by a Streptococcus bacteria. A fisherman in Palm Harbor and a vacationer swimming off Weedon Island also survived, but the exact cause of their necrotizing fasciitis was not known.

Experts say people with depleted immune systems and those swimming with open wounds are thought to be more at risk.

"I am more thankful [my grandson] didn't contract it. He was in the water with me. He is 10 years old."

The CDC says between 700 and 1,200 people are diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis per year, however, the exact numbers and causes for cases in Florida is not documented.