A growing number of Americans are infected with a deadly flesh-eating bacteria lurking in seawater and estuaries, health officials have warned.
Vibrio vulnificus, which thrives in warm temperatures, is infecting twice as many people on the East Coast compared to 2022, new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show.
Scientists say their increase in prevalence is due to the gradual increase in water temperatures in the US, as a result of climate change.
The gruesome insect enters the body through cuts and grazes in the skin and begins eating human flesh within 24 hours.
Without treatment, the disease can cause necrosis (tissue death) and the fatal blood infection septicemia.
Estimates suggest that approximately one in three infections is fatal.
Deadly infections caused by the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus are becoming increasingly common in the US.
The graph above shows the increasing number of cases detected in North Carolina, New York and Connecticut, between July and September, over the last three years.
The CDC report, led by the agency’s waterborne disease expert Michael Hughes, examined data from three states: North Carolina, Connecticut and New York.
The 11 cases recorded in North Carolina, New York and Connecticut in July and August of last year were analyzed.
For comparison, at the same time in 2022, only five infections were recorded, none in New York and Connecticut.
The year before, there were seven infections during this period, six in North Carolina and three in New York.
Eight of the patients registered in July and August died from the disease.
The report found that the average age of infected patients was 70 years old, although one individual was as young as 37 years old.
All but one had at least one underlying condition, with diabetes, cancer, heart disease and a history of alcoholism being the most common, with three suffering.
Two patients were also reported to have hematological diseases or disorders of the blood or blood-forming organs.
Six of the patients were reported to have become infected after bathing in warm coastal waters.
But in at least two of the cases, the infection was linked to a cut on the hand while preparing raw seafood for consumption.
Raw shellfish, such as oysters, can become contaminated with the bacteria because these animals are filter feeders: they suck in water to find nutrients. Once consumed by patients, the bacteria in shellfish can cause illness.
Experts warned in the report that “Vibrio vulnificus infections are expected to become more common” due to “increasing coastal water temperatures.”
Experts have been sounding the alarm for years about rising coastal temperatures.
Last year, the surface water temperature in Florida hit a record 101F.
The CDC report also included advice for Americans, helping them prevent infections.
“People can take steps to prevent illness by avoiding contact of wounds with brackish water, salt water, and raw shellfish and by cooking oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them.”
Doctors warn that every open wound, even as small as a paper cut, could be enough to trigger an infection when swimming in open water without protection.
Early warning signs of an infection include redness and swelling around the site where the bacteria entered the body.
Doctors say antibiotics should be given quickly to treat the infection.
Healthy adults are at low risk, doctors say, because their immune systems are strong enough to fight off bacteria.
But those with underlying conditions, such as obesity and old age, or who take immunosuppressive medications may be at higher risk.
Millions of Americans were warned to be careful at the beach over Labor Day weekend last year due to the risk of contracting Vibrio bacteria.
Experts told DailyMail.com that anyone with an open wound should avoid swimming in waters where Vibrio has been identified.
Experts say it was once thought to only be present in and around the Gulf of Mexico, but the bacteria, which thrives in warm, brackish waters, has now leaked into new areas due to rising temperatures.
Dr. Luis Ostrosky, an infectious disease expert at UTHealth Houston in Texas, said this was a “very, very aggressive bacteria.”
He told DailyMail.com: ‘If you have any cuts, don’t go in the water.
‘You should be very attentive to cuts and not immerse yourself in seawater if you have any of them.
“If you are immunocompromised, diabetic or have cirrhosis of the liver, it is not a good idea to go swimming (in the ocean) at this time.”