Scientists have sounded the alarm about a flesh-eating bacterium that could be present in every US East Coast state in the next 20 years.
By the 2040s, annual cases of Vibrio vulnificus could double as a result of warming oceans caused by climate change, according to researchers at the University of East Anglia in the UK.
They say climate change allows the bacterium to survive in waters farther north than ever before, while rising sea levels could push the organism further inland.
The CDC estimates that 80,000 Americans become infected with vibrio each year, although there are only 1,200 to 2,000 confirmed cases annually, as it is often misdiagnosed.
Deadly infections are caused by the bacterium V. vulnificus, known as flesh-eating bacteria, as skin infections can lead to necrotizing fasciitis, in which the flesh surrounding the wound dies.
Some infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection in which flesh around a wound dies (example shown)
The toxic bacterium thrives in warm, salty, shallow waters along the shoreline and responds to the smallest changes in temperature.
Infections in humans are rare but peak in the summer months. People get infections through open cuts or other skin lesions that come into contact with seawater.
An infection can also occur when someone eats raw or undercooked fish.
Infections spread rapidly in humans and can seriously damage human flesh. You cannot be infected by another person.
Symptoms include watery diarrhea, often accompanied by stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever.
Other signs include chills, skin lesions, and a deadly drop in blood pressure.
Some infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a serious infection in which the flesh around a wound dies.
About one in five people with the infection die, sometimes within a day or two of getting sick. Others may require intensive care or limb amputations.
People usually die from the infection when it enters the bloodstream and causes sepsis.
Graphs showing the number of people at risk based on various global warming scenarios, as well as the number of kilometers of coastline where the bacteria could be found.
Projections of the future spread of the bacteria if medium to high levels of greenhouse gas emissions occur
Anyone can get the infection, but it can be worse for people with weakened immune systems, particularly those with chronic liver disease or who take medications that reduce the body’s ability to fight germs.
The study, published in the journal scientific reportsused CDC data to track V. vulnificus infections between 1988 and 2018.
The scientists focused on the cases along the East Coast, which is a known global hotspot for infections.
They found that in Eastern US between 1988 and 2018, wound infections increased eightfold, from 10 to 80 cases per year, and the bacteria moved north 30 miles per year.
According to the CDC, V. vulnificus causes 80,000 illnesses a year, but most of them come from contaminated food.
Recently, the bacterium has been migrating north due to climate change, allowing it to multiply.
Researchers predict it could spread as far as Philadelphia.
They imagined scenarios involving different greenhouse gas emissions to predict how far the flesh-eating bacteria would spread.
By the 2040s, V. vulnificus could affect densely populated regions surrounding New York.
With medium to high emission levels, there could be approximately 140 to 200 infections each year.
The researchers also found that the economic burden of the bacteria is more than $28 million a year in treatment.
They said the total annual costs related to the pathogen are believed to be as high as $320 million, making it the most expensive pathogen to treat in the US.
Previously, flooding from Hurricane Ian in Florida caused a spike in infections.
Sewage spills into coastal waters as a result of the hurricane promoted the growth of the bacteria.
There were almost as many infections in a few weeks in Florida as there were in all of 2021.
Six people died in Lee County as a result of wound infections from exposure to floodwater from Hurricane Ian that had entered their home, or during post-storm cleanup.