Flesh-Eating Bacteria Can Pose a Risk to Anglers

As one unlucky angler discovered, a casual encounter with the wrong fish can quickly escalate into a life-threatening infection.

On the Saturday before a recent Father’s Day, David Brodie, of Oceanside, New York, was targeting striped bass with his son, working the bunker schools south of the New York Bight. Fishing in 40 feet of water, he was casting a heavy shooting head to get below the marauding packs of gorilla bluefish laying siege to schools of Atlantic menhaden. Using a streamer his son had developed to imitate these large baitfish, ultimately he was able to connect with a 40-plus-pound bruiser that tested the mettle of his nine-weight rod for more than 20 minutes.

Reaching into the cow bass’s mouth with both hands, he hoisted her up to be weighed and, after a few quick photos, sent her back to the briny deep, kicking strongly.

Fast forward to later that afternoon. Brodie arose from an afternoon nap to go to the restroom. That was around two p.m. Saturday. His next conscious memory was of the following Monday afternoon, when he awoke in a bed in the hospital, with all manner of tubes and wires connected to him.

The man had never made it to the restroom that afternoon, collapsing in the hallway. His wife found him almost an hour later and immediately called 911, as his mostly motionless body had appeared as if he had just suffered a stroke. The ambulance arrived and whisked him off to the emergency room, where his condition continued to mystify doctors.

He had developed an extremely high fever that had to be dealt with immediately. Lesions began to form on his left wrist. Unsure of what had happened to him, the hospital staff had been treating him with all manner of antibiotics in an effort to stop his bone and tissue loss. The doctors were faced with a stone-cold-who-done-it worthy of an episode of House. They tried several courses of antibiotics once they determined it was an infection, with very limited success to show for all their efforts. Only when an infectious-disease specialist was called in did they see any significant results.

The bacteria that had infected Brodie were from the Mycobacteria family. Mycobacteria are very common in both the terrestrial and aquatic world. There are a large numbers of species within this genus, and most of them are innocuous to most animals, piscine or otherwise. However, there are a few species that affect humans and other animals. In fact, the Mycobacteria genus contains species responsible for causing mammalian and avian tuberculosis. Other species affect other parts of the soft tissue, such as Mycobacterium leprae that causes leprosy and is still commonly carried by armadillos, though they are not often infected.

Then there are the so-called environmental strains, which are present in most of the world's waters. As many as 76 percent of the Chesapeake Bay's striped bass population could be infected with Mycobacterium; symptoms often manifest themselves as lesions or open sores on the fishes' skin. Recently, there seems to be an influx of infection in Atlantic Menhaden, an important forage species. There are also emerging reports of cormorants in neotropical regions being infected, though the link is not well understood at this time.

Transmission to humans isn't well comprehended. A few strains of the bacteria are known to infect people, but those are typically seen in aquarium settings. There is a broad line of bacterial infections known as Fish Handler's Disease, an informal term relating to diseases caused by bacteria of several genera, including E__rysipelothrix**** and Mycobacterium. Some of these diseases present as a mild annoyance to the host, with small granulomas in the extremities while others render those infected with non-healing sores. Because the symptoms and the long-term effects vary so widely it is important to seek treatment immediately if you think you may have been exposed.

According to scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, you should avoid handling or eating sickly fish, although these diseases are not transmittable through ingesting cooked fish. Fish with visible lesions should be released with the aid of a dehooking device if possible. Long sleeves and pants aid in preventing exposure as well. Wash your hands after handling fish, and any exposure to open water. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good measure if you don’t have access to fresh water, but is not a replacement for a thorough scrubbing when you reach the luxury of running water. Also remember to give your gear a thorough scrubbing. One globe-trotting angler uses Povidone wipes to quickly disinfect any wound on the water, however slight. (These are available through amazon.com and are a great addition to any tackle bag.)

Certainly Brodie would have never guessed that his encounter with that large striper would have almost led to his death. After that fateful day, he spent a baker’s dozen more in the hospital. Brodie was not allowed out of his house for a month and a half. As his right arm was not infected, it was the only site for IV lines, so it quickly resembled a pincushion. Eventually he was fitted with a picc line, essentially a catheter allowing for intravenous access for extended periods of time, which he used to self-administer antibiotics three times a day, for a total of six hours daily. This process would continue for a month and a half.

Brodie is one of the few humans to have ever been infected with this particular disease, and one of the few to have handled it so well. The infectious-diseases specialist that handled his case had dealt with only four similar cases this year. The other cases all involved amputations of infected tissue, in at least one case, an entire arm.

The only lasting effect for the man seems to be septic arthritis, a condition that Brodie won’t allow to disrupt his fishing in the future. Even after this lengthy ordeal, he still loves fishing as much as he always has. In fact, you can probably find him at the helm of his Parker center console as you read this.

So-Called Fish Handler's Disease Can be Transmitted to Humans

Courtesy Virginia Institute of Marine Science