A rare ‘flesh-eating’ bacteria that kills almost one in five infected is spreading up the east coast of the US due to warming waters.
Vibrio vulnificus is an ‘opportunistic bacterial pathogen’ found in coastal waters. Exposure to the bacteria through skin lesions can cause necrotising fasciitis, where tissue around the wound dies, requiring urgent removal of the affected area and resulting in limb amputation in around 10% of cases. Although cases are rare, infection by the bacteria leads to death in 18% of cases, sometimes as quickly as 48 hours after exposure.
A team of researchers from the UK, Spain and the US found that between 1988 and 2018, cases on the east coast of the US increased eightfold – from ten to 80 cases annually – and the northernmost occurrence shifted 48km a year as waters warm due to climate change.
In the late 1980s, infections were rare beyond the southern state of Georgia – on roughly the same latitude as Morocco. By 2018, cases were recorded as far north as Philadelphia, which lies on a similar latitude to northern Portugal.
Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, the team said: ‘Between 1988 and 2016 were over 1,100 wound infections reported in the USA, with 159 associated fatalities – highlighting the significant yet underappreciated impact of this pathogen.’
Using data modelling, the team predicts that between 2041 and 2060, V. vulnificus will spread up to New Jersey and New York – which coupled with a higher and more elderly population, could result in double the number of cases annually.
Beyond that, the fate of the bacteria depends on society’s response to climate change. Under more extreme warming, infections may occur as far north as Maine, a further 1,000km up the coastline. Under a low emissions scenario, infections are expected to remain relatively static.
The team concluded: ‘The northward V. vulnificus infection expansion stresses the need for increased individual and public health awareness in these areas. This is crucial, as prompt action when symptoms occur is necessary to prevent major health outcomes.
‘Individuals and health authorities could be warned in real time about particularly risky environmental conditions through marine or Vibrio-specific early warning systems.
‘Active control measures could include greater awareness programmes for at-risk groups – for example the elderly and individuals with underlying conditions – and coastal signage during high-risk periods.’
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