Flesh-eating bacteria death: 'A horror movie'
Marcia Funk of Ocean City watched her husband die in four days after he contracted a flesh-eating bacteria near their 94th Street home.
Michael Funk was cleaning crab pots on Sept. 11 at his bayside Ocean City condominium.
Four days later, Funk was dead, the victim of a flesh-eating bacteria he acquired in the Assawoman Bay – one of the bodies of water that separate Ocean City from the mainland.
For Marcia Funk, his wife of 46 years, his death is compounded by what she called a lack of information in Ocean City about the bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus.
"I really feel they kept it quiet because it's a tourist resort," said Funk. "It's like something out of a horror movie."
Vibrio is most common in areas of warm, brackish waters with low salinity, and can be contracted from consuming raw or under-cooked seafood as well as, in Funk's case, from the infection entering through cuts, according to Centers for Disease Control.
While not exceedingly rare, with approximately 85,000 reported cases of vibriosis occurring every year, most cases do not reach the severity of Funk's.
A spokesman said the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is investigating the matter. The number of Vibrio cases this year in Maryland was not immediately available.
Vibrio is not unheard-of in the area. In 2014, an outbreak of the bacteria in the Chesapeake Bay prompted officials to issue an advisory to visitors as vibriosis infections hit 57 in 2013, a Maryland state record.
There are no advisories for a Vibrio outbreak in the Assawoman Bay.
Ocean City spokeswoman Jessica Waters said the municipality has many outreach and education campaigns, but said Vibrio "has never been part of our awareness efforts, at least to my knowledge."
BACKGROUND: Deadly bay-dwelling bacteria elicits warnings
"We do work closely with the health department and as trends change or outbreaks arise (Zika and Ebola, for example) we help disseminate information and educate residents and visitors," she said in an email that also offered condolences to the family.
After Funk cleaned the crab pots in preparation for a return to the couple's Arizona home, he began to feel ill and went to the hospital, where a surgeon removed infected skin from his leg.
He was soon flown to a shock trauma hospital in Baltimore where his leg was amputated and he died Sept. 15.
"It was very fast moving," said Funk, adding that doctors immediately diagnosed it as Vibrio. "He was in so much pain."
According to Roman Jesien, marine scientist and chairman of the Maryland Coastal Advisory Fishery Committee, the effects and severity of Vibrio infections can vary, depending heavily on strength of an immune system and the particular strain of the bacteria.
"Some people can have an infection, maybe get a little sick, and be just fine," Jesien said. "Others aren't as lucky. There's a lot of factors that come into play."
While Jesien said severe cases are somewhat rare, the particular strain of Vibrio plays a crucial role in its impact.
The most common form of Vibrio infection stems from tainted seafood and presents in a manner similar to cholera, including intense gastrointestinal distress.
Vibrio vulnificus is rare but a cause for concern.
"We don't see that many cases of that nature, but they do happen, and there are things you can do to avoid it," Jesien said.
Both the CDC and Coastal Bays insisted on following protocols to avoid Vibrio infections, which are most common in the warmer months between May and October.
They include avoiding cloudy or murky, warm water, not swimming in areas where it has rained within 48 hours and always cooking seafood, including crab and fish thoroughly.
They advise keeping all wounds clean if there's a possibility of infection, and to follow all advisories for potential outbreaks.
For Funk, being on the water was a lifestyle.
"He loved the water, he loved boating, he loved crabbing," his widow said. "Basically, what he loved doing took his life."