Flesh-Eating Bacteria Are Migrating Up The East Coast As Climate Change Warms Sea, Scientists Say


Climate change could be driving a potentially deadly ocean-dwelling bacteria capable of causing “flesh-eating” infections up along the East Coast of the United States, researchers warned on Thursday, the latest in a long list of ways global warming threatens not only the environment but human health and wellbeing as well.

Key Facts

Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria from the same family as the one that causes cholera, naturally lives in warm, salty water and can infect wounds, bites or cuts that come into contact with seawater.

Infections are rare but can be life-threatening—it can kill as many as one in five infected people, sometimes within just a day or two of them falling sick—and is capable of causing necrotizing fasciitis, the medical term for a “flesh-eating” infection.

Infections have been steadily ticking up along the East Coast over the past 30 years, according to research published in Scientific Reports on Thursday, rising from around 10 per year to 80 per year.

The researchers said infections used to be localized to the Gulf of Mexico and along the southern Atlantic coast and were rare north of Georgia, but an analysis of CDC data revealed they have been steadily moving northwards and can now be found as far north as Philadelphia.

Accounting for warming temperatures and an aging population—the elderly are much more susceptible to infection—the researchers predict the bacteria’s northward expansion could reach as far as the densely populated areas around New York in the next 20 years and the number of annual infections will double.

Using less optimistic climate models where carbon emissions are not kept low, the researchers said infections could rise as high as 140 and 200 cases every year by the end of the century and have spread to every East Coast state.

Crucial Quote

Elizabeth Archer, a postgraduate researcher at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia and the study’s lead author, told Forbes the findings point to the wider impact climate change is having on the environment. Given their sensitivity to temperature, Archer said Vibrio is “a sort of microbial barometer of climate change,” adding that the research highlights how “important it is to look after the coastal environment.”

What To Watch For

The bacteria are natural parts of the coastal ecosystem and elimination is neither feasible nor reasonable. “We can’t just eradicate them from the environment they naturally occur in,” Archer said, stressing the need for preventing infections in the first place. The U.S. has few tools for swimmers and other ocean goers to see what risk Vibrio poses, Archer said, pointing to a map used by the European Center for Disease Control as one example of what could be done to help people understand the risks. Those living in states unaccustomed to infections should also familiarize themselves with the symptoms, Archer said. “It’s a matter of days and really important to get medical attention.”

What We Don’t Know

The nature of the study means it cannot definitively pin Vibrio’s northwards migration on human-driven climate change, though the future-facing predictions do take that into account. The bacteria is also present elsewhere in the U.S., for example the West Coast, but the researchers did not examine how this had changed over time. Archer told Forbes health data was also limited for parts of Mexico that experience infections, so it’s not certain whether cases have increased or spread there. A lot more research will be needed to gain a comprehensive view, Archer said, adding that this study is the first to map how infections changed as opposed to reporting sporadic cases.

Key Background

Leading scientists overwhelmingly and conclusively point to human activity as the cause of climate change. The impacts are drastic and far-reaching. It is driving up the frequency of dangerous weather phenomena like storms, heat waves, cold snaps, flooding and wildfires, as well as increasing their severity. There are marked knock-on effects climate change has on human health and wellbeing, whether from direct damage from such phenomena, which can also help foster the spread of disease, or from increasing the risks of new pathogens emerging or existing ones expanding their range, such as Valley fever’s migration out of the Southwest. Heat specifically poses a direct health risk and also exacerbates mental health conditions, hampers cognitive functioning and makes us more aggressive.

Further Reading

‘Vast’ mass of microbes being released by melting glaciers (Guardian)

What to know about flesh-eating bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, and how to avoid it (CNN)

‘Dramatic’ Rise In Deadly Superbug Fungus Infections In U.S., CDC Report Says (Forbes)

What Is Sargassum? The 5,000-Mile Floating Seaweed Island Headed Toward Florida (Forbes)

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