A recently conducted study that traced the transmission of lethal bacteria has revealed compelling evidence supporting the spread of a “flesh-eating” illness in New York and around every Eastern US state.
In September, Hurricane Ian devastated the southwest coast of Florida, resulting in a storm surge that reached 13 feet in the town of Fort Myers. The surge caused flooding in homes, businesses, and sewage systems, creating a mixture of brackish Gulf water and waste. Taking advantage of this situation, Vibrio vulnificus, a highly adaptable microscopic organism known for its flesh-eating capabilities, began to spread.
The bacteria infected 28 people and caused skin cell degradation, iron depletion from blood, and multiple organ failure, ultimately leading to the death of seven individuals. The number of cases decreased as the floodwaters receded, and no new infections were reported after October 13th. However, numerous experts believe that V. vulnificus, as well as other harmful vibrio species, could increase in prevalence in the coming years as a result of climate change’s impact on the aquatic environment.
Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, which flourish in warm, shallow waters along the coast, can enter the body through a cut or insect bite that comes into contact with seawater.
A recent investigation, led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK, has revealed that the prevalence of V. vulnificus infections along the East Coast of the US, a global epicenter for these types of infections, has surged from 10 to 80 cases per year over a period of 30 years.
Furthermore, instances of such infections have been observed to occur in progressively more northern areas with time. While in the late 1980s, they were primarily discovered in the Gulf of Mexico and along the southern Atlantic coastline, occurrences were uncommon north of Georgia. At present, however, cases have been identified as far north as Philadelphia.
According to the researchers, infections may extend to major population centers surrounding New York by 2041-2060. When combined with a rising and increasingly aged population, who are more vulnerable to such infections, annual cases may double.
Infections could potentially be present in every state on the Eastern US coast by 2081-2100, under medium-to-high future emissions and warming scenarios.
The results of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports today.
These results are crucial since although the overall number of cases reported in the US is not high, individuals who contract V. vulnificus have a one-in-five likelihood of succumbing to the infection. Moreover, it is the most costly marine pathogen to treat in the US.
The condition reaches its peak during the summer months and spreads quickly, resulting in severe damage to a person’s flesh. For this reason, it is often referred to as a “flesh-eating” illness, and survivors may require amputation of affected limbs.
Elizabeth Archer, a postgraduate researcher in the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA and the lead author of the study remarked, “The projected expansion of infections highlights the need for increased individual and public health awareness in the areas affected. This is crucial as prompt action when symptoms occur is necessary to prevent major health consequences.”
Human activities that emit greenhouse gases are modifying the climate, and the repercussions of this alteration may be particularly severe for the planet’s coastlines. These regions serve as a vital interface between natural ecosystems and human populations, and they are also a significant contributor to human illnesses.
The analysis shows “that by the end of the 21st Century, V. vulnificus infections will extend further northwards but how far North will depend upon the degree of further warming and therefore on our future greenhouse gas emissions.”
“If emissions are kept low, then cases may extend northwards only as far as Connecticut. If emissions are high, infections are predicted to occur in every US state on the East Coast. By the end of the 21st Century we predict that around 140-200 V. vulnificus infections may be reported each year.”
The team of researchers recommends the development of early warning systems that can notify both individuals and health authorities in real-time about environmental conditions that pose a significant risk of infection with Vibrio bacteria. Such systems could be focused on marine environments or be specifically designed to identify Vibrio-related risks.
The implementation of active control measures could include creating heightened awareness programs for groups that are at a higher risk of contracting infections, such as the elderly and individuals with underlying medical conditions. Furthermore, coastal signage could be utilized to notify the public of high-risk periods.
“The observation that cases of V. vulnificus have expanded northwards along the East Coast of the US is an indication of the effect that climate change is already having on human health and the coastline. Knowing where cases are likely to occur in future should help health services plan for the future,” adds Co-author Prof Iain Lake.
This study marks the first attempt to chart the shifts in the locations where cases of V. vulnificus have been diagnosed along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Moreover, it represents the first effort to examine how climate change may impact the spread of such infections in the coming decades.
The research team utilized data on the locations of individuals who had contracted V. vulnificus infections, which was acquired from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This information enabled them to chart the northward expansion of Vibrio vulnificus infections over a span of 30 years, from 1988 to 2018.
They then employed temperature data obtained from both observed conditions and computer-based climate models to project where cases of Vibrio vulnificus might occur by the end of the current century in the US.
“This is a landmark paper which not only ties global climate change to disease but provides strong evidence for the environmental spread of this extremely deadly bacterial pathogen,” adds Co-author Prof James Oliver.
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