Flesh-eating bacteria that live in the ocean could be spreading to East Coast beaches due to climate change, according to a new report.
Vibrio vulnificus, which is typically found in warmer waters above 55 degrees, such as those in the Gulf of Mexico, has been making its way up the coast as ocean waters continue to warm up, the report’s authors found.
There have already been five cases of flesh-eating bacterial infections in people exposed to water from the Delaware Bay, according to the report, which was published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine by six authors from Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey.
There were five cases of flesh-eating bacteria connected to activity in the Delaware Bay between 2017 and 2018, compared to just one case in the eight years prior to that, the authors noted.
One patient died, while others suffered catastrophic injuries, including one man who had four limbs amputated. The authors noted that each of the patients had compromised immune systems at the time they became infected.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are approximately 205 V. vulnificus infections reported nationwide each year. The study found that warmer water temperatures in the United States have resulted in "longer summer seasons and ... alterations in the quantity, distribution, and seasonal windows of bacteria" in the coastal ecosystem, providing "more favorable conditions for Vibrio.”
The report notes that while the infection is still rare this far north, it has become more prevalent on the East Coast in recent years.
V. vulnificus is typically contracted when an open wound is exposed to contaminated water or by eating raw or undercooked shellfish that was subjected to the bacteria.
"We believe that clinicians should be aware of the possibility that V. vulnificus infections are occurring more frequently outside traditional geographic areas," the authors wrote in the report.
The authors note that doctors who may not be familiar with flesh-eating bacteria and infections should “be aware of the possibility that V. vulnificus infections are occurring more frequently outside traditional geographic areas.”
According to health officials at the Mayo Clinic, “flesh-eating disease occurs when bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin. People with a weakened immune system can be at greater risk of developing this condition. The condition spreads quickly. Symptoms include blisters, fever, fatigue, and pain worse than a person would expect based on the wound's appearance.”
Treatment involves the immediate delivery of IV antibiotics. Surgical removal of dead or infected tissue from the wound is often required.
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