Deadly infection from fish hook wound

AS a recreational fisherman with 45 years’ experience, Warren Pepper never suspected that dropping a line in the Hunter River could almost kill him.

But when a pinprick-sized finger wound from a fishing hook provided an entry point for a deadly infection, the Georgetown resident discovered a threat lurking in the water.

Had he not received life-saving medical attention in the 48 hours after infection with the water-borne bacteria, vibrio vulnificus, he might have died.

Mr Pepper was also at risk of having his hand or forearm amputated. Successful treatment saved his limbs and his life and he is now, cautiously, fishing again.

Mr Pepper was at a favourite angling spot on the river at Kooragang, under the Stockton Bridge, last month when he nicked his finger.

The next day, he developed a painful marble-sized lump in the back of his left hand.

Within an hour the lump swelled to the size of a tennis ball.

Mr Pepper’s muscles began to ache all over his body and he collapsed in pain.

He was taken in an ambulance to Waratah’s Calvary Mater Newcastle hospital, then transferred to John Hunter Hospital in Rankin Park.

Antibiotics were administered, an operation was considered, and Mr Pepper was told he faced amputation of his hand or, as the infection rapidly travelled, loss of his arm.

‘‘It was very frightening to see it progressing up my arm, swelling up,’’ Mr Pepper said.

After determining that a foreign body bacteria had entered Mr Pepper’s blood, the clinicians made a breakthrough when they learned their patient had been fishing.

A vibrio vulnificus infection was diagnosed.

‘‘The mortality rate is pretty high and within 48 hours you can die from it,’’ Mr Pepper said. ‘‘If I had not sought attention I might not be here to tell the story.’’

After having his arm in plaster and taking intravenous and oral antibiotics, Mr Pepper is recovering. He said he owed his life to the John Hunter clinicians who worked tirelessly to treat him.

Hunter New England public health physician David Durrheim said vibrio vulnificus was a bacteria in the same family as cholera.

It liked to live in warm marine and estuarine water.

‘‘If people enter that environment and they’ve got cuts or open wounds on their body they can potentially get infected,’’ Dr Durrheim said.

Eating undercooked shellfish was another potential source.


Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria that lives in warm marine and estuarine water.

It’s rare in the Hunter, but common in tropical areas.

Infection enters through cuts and wounds or eating raw or undercooked shellfish.

Potential illnesses include septicaemia, gastroenteritis, wound swelling, redness, pain and blisters that can progress to tissue necrosis.

There's a risk of amputation or death within 48 hours.

The infection is treated with antibiotics.

To avoid infection, cover wounds and cook seafood.

Sources: Dr David Durrheim; America Liver Foundation

Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide