‘Flesh-eating’ Bacteria may be Spreading to Beach Waters Due to Climate Change

With the holiday season on the beach, scientists are sounding the alarm of a horrible infection that stretches across the shores of the US. Here’s how higher ocean water temperatures negatively affect your health. Doctors at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, warn swimmers and fishermen in the northeast about so-called “flesh-eating” bacteria, which they say may be spreading as a result of climate change.

Flesh-eating bacteria, to cause a deadly infection called necrotizing fasciitis

The technical term for this carnivorous bacterium is Vibrio vulnificus or V. vulnificus, and there are two forms of exposure to it: when it comes into contact with it in the water or when eating contaminated shellfish. Until recently, infections with necrotizing fasciitis have been associated with destinations on warmer beaches, such as those in South Florida. This is because V. vulnificus lives in waters with surface temperatures above 55.4 degrees Fahrenheit. But researchers are now warning that, due to global warming, we could begin to see more of this carnivorous bacteria in typically colder areas like New Jersey.

flesh eating bacteria

The researchers report an uptick in cases of Vibrio vulnificus infection

A class of bacteria known for causing necrotizing fasciitis, a condition which rapidly kills skin and muscle tissue, and frequently requires an amputation, if it’s not fatal. The bacteria enters the bloodstream either through a wound which makes contact with infected water, or via eating contaminated seafood.

The Delaware Bay sits in between New Jersey and Delaware coastlines. The authors of the new report, who work at Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey, warn that infections caused by V. vulnificus aren’t uncommon in the Chesapeake Bay, which is further south than the Delaware Bay. However, V. vulnificus infections resulting from exposure in the Delaware Bay were rare—until recently.

In the eight years prior to 2017, Cooper’s doctors saw only one V. vulnificus infection in their hospital

But during the summers of 2017 and 2018, they saw five infections by necrotizing fasciitis by V. vulnificus. Katherine Doktor, MD, lead author of the new analysis, tells Health, “The Vibrio bacteria like warm water. Usually, it’s found in the Gulf Coast.” But when she and her coworkers started noticing more cases of V. vulnificus in New Jersey, they decided to notify the public that beachgoers and physicians should know about the trend. “Given our findings, we wanted other clinicians to be aware they might be seeing Vibrio infections [in] cooler places, and they should be aware of it,” Dr. Doktor says.

There are some steps you can take to protect yourself. First, you should be aware of any open wounds in your body, even those as small as a minor cut, before submerging. Consider placing a waterproof bandage on those wounds before swimming. In addition, Dr. Doktor says that if you are immunosuppressed, avoid eating raw or undercooked seafood.

Final Words

Finally, since the crab is a cornerstone in the Delaware Bay region, Dr. Doktor recommends participating in the activity with caution. “If [you] go to crab, wear gloves when you shake the crabs,” she says. And if you end up wade in the water while doing crabs, put on your shoes. Specifically, Dr. Doktor says you should wear boots that protect your legs. Again, the chances of developing an infection by Flesh-Eating bacteria are quite low. But it does not hurt to be prepared while you’re heading to the beach for the next few months.


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