Climate change drives spread of flesh-eating bacteria along US east coast
Warming waters due to climate change are having a dire effect on the health of individuals residing along the US east coast. The rise in infections with the rare flesh-eating bacteria Vibrio vulnificus has been linked to this phenomenon. The bacteria is present in seawater and can cause life-threatening wound infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many people with the Vibrio vulnificus infection require intensive care or limb amputations, and about 1 in 5 people with this infection die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill.
Some Vibrio vulnificus infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection in which the flesh around an open wound dies. Media reports often refer to this kind of infection as “flesh-eating bacteria,” even though necrotizing fasciitis can be caused by more than one type of bacteria.
The Metro reported on a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, which highlighted the significant yet underappreciated impact of this pathogen. Between 1988 and 2016, there were over 1,100 wound infections reported in the USA, with 159 associated fatalities.
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 doubling 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.
This alarming news comes at a time when the world is already grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. The healthcare industry is already overburdened, and the rise of flesh-eating bacteria infections due to climate change could lead to even more strain on an already stretched system.
The impact of climate change on human health cannot be ignored any longer. It is time for society to take action and make a concerted effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit the effects of global warming. Failure to do so will have severe consequences for our health and the planet.