Science

Tattooed Man Dies of Flesh-Eating Bacteria!

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Sorta transcript:

A man has died from a flesh-eating bacteria after getting a tattoo! I know this because I have a tattoo and I also have a mother with an email account.

I saw this story on about a thousand different mainstream news sites — basically, every local and national news outlet is on this. But the question is, why? At first glance, it seems like flesh-eating bacteria is an obvious go-to for the news — if it bleeds, it leads, and if it eats your skin, it’s in (all the ads running up to the 5 o’clock news).

But if that were the case, we’d also still remember the two people who died of the exact same bacteria in 2015 in Florida, or the dozen people who have died from the same bacteria after eating oysters from the Gulf of Mexico. Or we’d be talking about the 80,000 people who get sick from the bacteria every year but don’t die.

But we’re talking about this case because the man in question had gotten a tattoo a few days prior, and that means that we can do the all-too-human thing of blaming the tattoo. After all, a lot of people have tattoos, and even more people hate tattoos or think of them as dirty, or degenerate. Since pretty much everyone has an opinion on them, that makes this case go viral.

Now, I don’t want to downplay the danger of flesh-eating bacteria. It is dangerous, and it is a problem people need to know about. But people reading the headlines of this case are likely to come away thinking a few very wrong things. First and foremost, they may consider tattoos to be an actual risk factor for flesh-eating bacteria. They aren’t. Allow me to explain why.

You can contract this bacteria, known as Vibrio vulnificus, in two ways. The most common is by eating raw or undercooked shellfish, like oysters, that are found in places the bacteria flourishes. The less common way is by exposing injured skin to it in that same water. Obviously, the tattoo situation is the latter, but any skin wound would be the exact same. A tattoo is just a big patch of skin with a bunch of holes in it, which is exactly the reason why basic tattoo aftercare that everyone who has ever had a tattoo in a reputable place is told is that you do not expose your tattoo to standing water for at least two weeks while the tattoo heals. No swimming, no surfing, no baths. And that’s also why the same holds true if you have a cut on your body. You should keep it clean and not risk exposing it to dangerous bacteria.

So that’s how you get the bacteria, but how do you end up dying from it? Most people are able to fight bacterial infections like this with no real problem, so to actually die from it, it helps if you a suppressed immune system. The most common contributing factor is chronic liver disease, and wouldn’t you know it? That’s exactly what the tattooed man had.

To recap, this case involved a man with chronic liver disease who exposed a skin injury to warm, brackish water that was known to be a breeding ground for a skin-eating bacteria. For that, he died, and that sucks but it doesn’t mean that tattoos are dangerous. In fact, they’re safer than they’ve ever been thanks to stricter regulations.

So if you are planning to get a tattoo, do yourself a favor and listen to your tattoo artist about aftercare. They’re not just telling you all that stuff to annoy you. And if you live on the Gulf of Mexico, avoid the raw oysters, especially if your immune system isn’t up to snuff. Oh, and if you’d prefer to have less flesh-eating bacteria in your oceans, encourage the US government to accept that climate change is real. The number one reason it’s flourishing is because of warming sea levels.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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2 Comments

  1. June 9, 2017 at 10:07 pm —

    Funny how people try to blame that which they don’t like i(e tattoos) rather than the combination of open wounds in dirty water as the cause.

    Of course the media needs to sensationalise everything by making shocking sound bite headlines just to make sales or get views.

  2. June 13, 2017 at 8:52 pm —

    Hmm. I’ve only seen reports on Friendly Atheist, The Freethinker, and maybe Butterflies and Wheels. The big push there was that this was a Jesus tattoo.

    Also mentioned that the man ignored aftercare advice, had cirrhosis, and was an active drinker admitting to a six-pack per day.

    Given that combination, the existence of the tattoo is almost an afterthought except for the irony.

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