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.
Flesh-eating bacteria infections have been rising along East Coast.GETTY IMAGES
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.

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.

Elizabeth Archer, a postgraduate researcher at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia and the study’s lead author, 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.”

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 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.

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.

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