According to an American study, Vibrio vulnificus is expected to proliferate in the coming years, especially along the east coast of the USA, where its presence is projected to double due to the effects of global warming. There have already been numerous reported cases of infection in both the US and Europe. Here's an overview of what Vibrio vulnificus is and how to protect yourself against it.
In September 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a health advisory, notifying healthcare professionals and public health authorities about a surge in instances involving flesh-eating bacteria, leading to severe wound infections. A study published in the Scientific Reports of Nature says that the bacterium is particularly active in the USA, thriving in warm coastal waters and causing potentially fatal infections. Scientists predict that Vibrio vulnificus is likely to multiply over the next few years as ocean temperatures rise, particularly on the east coast of the United States, where their population could double within the next twenty years.
What is the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria?
Vibrio vulnificus is a marine bacterium belonging to the vibrio family, similar to cholera. This pathogenic bacterium can infect wounds and induce a rare condition known as necrotizing fasciitis, earning it the ominous nickname of "flesh-eating bacteria." These bacteria don't just harm the skin's surface; they release toxins that destroy underlying tissues, including muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. Once these bacteria enter the bloodstream, they can invade other bodily tissues and organs. When neglected, necrotizing fasciitis can prove fatal, sometimes in as little as 48 hours. There are approximately 150 to 200 cases of Vibrio vulnificus in the United States annually, and the mortality rate is one out of every five individuals who contract the infection.
Why is Vibrio vulnificus bacteria rising?
This bacteria lives in warm coastal waters. As global warming continues to raise ocean temperatures worldwide, it creates new habitats for these bacteria. For example, in the U.S., it predominantly inhabited the Gulf Coast states previously, but a recent study shows that the number of infections has increased along the East Coast over the last 30 years (between 1988 and 2018) as well. Climate change also fuels stronger hurricanes and storms, which are also associated with the rise of flesh-eating bacteria. However, for now, the illness that it provokes remains very rare.
How do you catch Vibrio vulnificus bacteria?
This bacterium lives in warm seawater, but it also can be found in areas where the ocean meets fresh water. The warm months, between May and October, are the most dangerous times, as many people swim and fish during this period, increasing the risk of bacteria infiltrating through open wounds or sores. Additionally, Vibrio vulnificus can be present in seafood, such as oysters or shellfish, and is the leading cause of seafood-associated fatalities in the US.
What are the symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis and how is it treated?
Fever, redness, swelling at the injured area, dizziness, and severe pain are the initial symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis. You can find the full list of symptoms on the official website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition progresses rapidly, so if you experience these symptoms, seeking medical help as soon as possible is crucial. Necrotizing fasciitis is a very severe illness that can lead to sepsis, shock, organ failure, and other life-threatening complications. It requires prompt medical attention, including antibiotics and even surgery.
How to protect yourself from necrotizing fasciitis
There are some CDC recommendations to protect yourself from this dangerous illness:
- If you have a fresh cut, tattoo, piercing, or wound, avoid entering water until it is fully healed. Otherwise, ensure thorough coverage of the wound with a waterproof bandage.
- If you have an open wound, avoid handling raw seafood and fish.
- Regularly wash your hands and wounds with soap.
- People with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to severe diseases like necrotizing fasciitis. So, it's essential to stay informed, even though this disease remains very rare.