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Man Dies Swimming In The Ocean After Ignoring Post-Tattoo Advice


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockJun 5 2017, 17:17 UTC

The infected tattoo. Hendren et al.

A 31-year-old man died after contracting a flesh-eating bacteria while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. The deceased had a newly inked tattoo on his right leg and ignored advice to wait at least two weeks before going swimming in the ocean.

As reported in the British Medical Journal Case Reports, the man was infected with Vibrio vulnificus, a dangerous pathogen that is present in many marine environments, like estuaries and coastal areas. It is related to cholera and wounds infected by the bacterium have a mortality rate of around 25 percent.


After his swim, the man developed a fever and chills. A rash began to form around his tattoo and the symptoms became worse in the following two days, resulting in him being rushed to hospital. By the time he was under medical care, his leg had turned purple. The right calf, where the tattoo was, quickly developed deep wounds due to the infection

The infected tattoo. Hendren et al.

The medical examiners suspected V. vulnificus to be the cause immediately but within 24 hours of his admission, the man was on life-support battling septic shock. His immune system was devastated by the infection and his organs were struggling to function. Although the man's condition improved after a few weeks, the damage to his body was so severe that he passed away after two months in intensive care.

The research paper highlights how the aggravating cause for the patient was chronic liver disease due to years of heavy drinking. They report that severe liver damage could likely increase the mortality rate for the V. vulnificus and medical professionals should be aware of that factor when treating patients. This might help patients although it's not a guarantee.

"Unfortunately even if we are able to identify that the liver is diseased no additional therapies are available beyond antibiotics, wound care and supportive care," lead author Dr Nicholas Hedren told IFLscience. "Even despite appropriate antibiotics and supportive care, unfortunately, the infection is very serious and many patients still pass away as the infection overwhelms the body."

The infection spreading down the leg. Hendren et al.

The V. vulnificus bacteria can be contracted not just by having skin lesions from a tattoo but also by ingesting infected raw fish, like oysters for example. In the best case scenario, infections can be easily treated with antibiotics but in the worst case, like this one, the body develops sepsis. Sepsis causes the body to attack itself in the desperate fight against pathogens.

The optimal treatment against this bacterium is not yet known but there are some clinical trials investigating it. Surprisingly it disproportionally affects male patients, 85 percent of those who develop endotoxic shock from the bacteria are male compared to just 15 percent for women. Estrogen has been shown to protect against the dangerous bacterium.

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