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Experts warn deadly bacteria to become increasingly common in North: 'It is surprising in the historical context'

"I don't want to say I am shocked."

"I don't want to say I am shocked."

Photo Credit: iStock

Scientists say that warming temperatures are causing potentially deadly flesh-eating bacteria to migrate north.

What's happening?

Normally, Vibrio vulnificus, also known as flesh-eating bacteria, makes itself at home in warm and somewhat salty waters like those off the U.S. Gulf Coast. However, infections are popping up more and more in Northeast states. In fact, the bacterium is moving about 30 miles north each year, according to Scienceline.

In September, New York City released a health advisory on V. vulnificus, reporting that infections in the Eastern United States had increased eightfold from 1988 to 2018. In 2023, people from several East Coast states, including Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina, suffered severe and fatal infections.

"I don't want to say I am shocked," Elizabeth Archer, a marine biologist at the University of Essex, told Scienceline in response to the recent spike in infections up north. "[But] it is surprising in the historical context, when you know these cases were mostly occurring in the Gulf of Mexico region."

In a recent paper, Archer predicted that infections in the Northeast will leap from a baseline average of around 60 annual cases to up to 115 by 2040, as Scienceline summarized.

Why is the spread of Vibrio vulnificus concerning?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a V. vulnificus infection can lead to watery diarrhea, stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, and fever. Fever, chills, dangerously low blood pressure, and blistering skin lesions can result if the infection enters the bloodstream. For wound infections, which can spread to the rest of the body, people may experience fever, redness, pain, swelling, warmth, discoloration, and discharge. 

Although it is rare to contract it, one in five people who do so are likely to die, per Scienceline. And elderly people with compromised immune systems and liver problems face higher risks.

Though a warmer ocean is the primary driver of the bacterium's spread, other climate-driven catastrophes like hurricanes and coastal floods are contributing.

V. vulnificus isn't the only pathogen that is on the rise because of a warming world. For example, scientists say extreme weather linked to rising global temperatures is causing a resurgence of a previously rare disease in California called Valley fever, which can cause coughing, tiredness, and chest pain. About 20% of cases can lead to more serious complications like ulcers, swollen joints, meningitis, and death. 

Experts have also predicted that rising global temperatures could facilitate the spread of hepatitis E along with other infectious diseases.

What can I do to protect myself from V. vulnificus?

Though it's still relatively rare to become infected, V. vulnificus carries serious consequences.

Be aware of the conditions of the water before you go for a swim and avoid areas where V. vulnificus is present. Open wounds, along with new piercings and tattoos, should also be covered before entering the water, per the CDC. 

The public health agency also recommends cooking oysters and other shellfish before eating them, washing your hands with soap and water after handling raw shellfish, and seeking medical attention immediately for infected wounds.

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