Climate change is fueling the spread of a “deadly flesh-eating bacterium” in ever-farther northerly waters. This is confirmed by a study published in the prestigious journal Scientific Reportswhich relates the increase in temperatures and the warming of the oceans with an increased presence of this dangerous marine pathogen called Vibrio vulnificus. Although the bacterium is common in subtropical regions, the research team warns that there has been an “alarming” increase in infections along the Northeast coast of the United States. Specifically, in northern areas where it was not present before, such as Delaware Bay. An area located in the same latitude as Spain.
The microorganism causes a serious illness, associated with a high case fatality rate (40-60%). Vibrio vulnificus is usually found in warm waters with high salinity, but the increase in temperature affects the level of mineral salts in the waters further north, which favors the bacteria. The team of researchers led by Elizabeth Archera postgraduate researcher at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich (UK), says that global warming, population growth and an aging population will contribute to the exponential increase in these infections in the coming years.
Currently, there are about 100 cases of infections by this flesh-eating bacterium each year in the US. The Gulf Coast, between this country and Mexico, is considered a “global hot spot” for the bacteria. The researchers looked for changes in the geographic distribution of the disease and found that between 1988 and 2018, the annual number of these infections rose from 10 to 80, with cases shifting north.
“During this time, infections were reported further north along the coast each year,” he said. “In the late 1980s, cases were rare in north Georgia, but today they can be found as far north as Philadelphia. Our models indicate that this northward movement along the East Coast will continue with sustained warming of the climate.” This led the researchers to project that between 2081 and 2100 cases could reach areas like New York and could double.
In fact, they anticipate that andn the next 20 years or so, infections will travel some 11,000 kilometers of coastline and that in the next 70 years they could be found more than 14,400 km from the coast, reaching the St. Lawrence River, in Canada. This means that in the year 2100, between 90 and 210 million people will be at risk.
Cases can escalate rapidly and require amputation
“Climate change is likely to cause Vibrio vulnificus wound infections in more northerly states. The number of cases of these serious and life-threatening infections will increase,” says the lead researcher. And she continues: “It is very important that any suspicion of infection by this bacterium receive medical attention quickly, since cases can escalate very quickly“. A person infected with Vibrio vulnificus has one chance of dying in five.
The people over the age of 60 are more susceptible to infection, and with the 60+ age group increasing, cases for that group could double by 2041-2060 or triple by 2081-2100, they say. Vibrio infections may be due to eating raw or undercooked shellfishbut Vibrio vulnificus is a form that infects wounds and it is this that is often called “flesh-eating bacteria,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The infection can occur when a small skin lesion is exposed to seawater bacteria. According to the study, the bacteria can cause the death of the area, causing the patient to need urgent surgery to remove the tissue or run the risk of amputation. Although infections remain rare, mortality rates are high: around 18%. Most deaths occur within 48 hours of exposure.
Treatment of these infections it is also the most expensive of marine pathogens, spending in the US $320 million a year, according to the study. For these reasons, the CDC advises people with wounds, including those from surgery, tattoos, or piercings, to stay away from salt or brackish water, cover their wounds with a waterproof bandage, and wash cuts well, especially afterward. from contact with salt water, brackish water, or raw shellfish and their juices.
As early as 2029, a study found that these infections had begun to occur outside traditional geographic boundaries, and more frequently. In just two years, five cases of Vibrio vulnificus had been linked to Delaware Bay. One of the patients died.