Scientists have sounded the alarm over a flesh-eating bacteria which could be present in every US state on the East Coast within the next 20 years.
By the 2040s, annual cases of Vibrio vulnificus could double as a result of warming oceans caused by climate change, according to researchers from the University of East Anglia in the UK.
They say climate change allows the bacterium to survive in waters further north than ever, while rising sea levels could push the organism further inland.
The CDC estimates that 80,000 Americans are infected with vibrio every year, although there are only 1,200 to 2,000 confirmed cases annually as it is often misdiagnosed
The deadly infections are caused by the V. vulnificus bacterium, referred to as a flesh-eating bacteria as skin infections can lead to necrotizing fasciitis, where the flesh surrounding a wound dies
Some infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection where the flesh around a wound dies (example shown)
The toxic bacteria flourish in warm, salty and shallow water along the coast and respond to the smallest shifts in temperature.
It is currently most common in coastal waters in North Carolina.
Infections in humans are uncommon but peak in the summer months. People contract infections through open cuts or other skin lesions that come into contact with seawater.
An infection can also occur when someone consumes raw or undercooked fish.
Infections spread quickly in humans and can seriously damage human flesh. You cannot be infected by another person.
Symptoms include watery diarrhea, often accompanied by stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, and fever.
Other signs include chills, skin lesions, and a deadly drop in blood pressure.
Some infections lead to necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection where the flesh around a wound dies.
Around one in five people with the infection die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill. Others may require intensive care or limb amputations.
People usually die from the infection when it enters the bloodstream and causes sepsis.
Graphs showing the number of people at risk based on various scenarios of global warming, as well as the number of kilometers of coastline where the bacteria could be found
Projections of future spread of the bacteria if medium-to-high levels of greenhouse gas emissions occur
Anyone can get the infection, but it can be worse for people with weakened immune systems — particularly those with chronic liver disease or who take medicine that reduces the body’s ability to fight off germs.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, used CDC data to track V. vulnificus infections between 1988 and 2018.
The scientists honed in on cases along the East Coast, which is a known global hotspot for infections.
They found that in Eastern US between 1988 and 2018, wound infections increased eightfold from 10 to 80 cases per year, and the bacteria shifted northwards 48km annually.
According to the CDC, V. vulnificus causes 80,000 illnesses a year, but the majority of these come from contaminated food.
Recently, the bacteria has been migrating north due to climate change allowing it to multiply.
The researchers predict it could expand as far as Philadelphia.
They imagined scenarios involving different greenhouse gas emissions to predict how far the flesh-eating bacteria would spread.
By the 2040s, V. vulnificus could affect densely populated regions surrounding New York.
With medium-to-high levels of emissions, there could be roughly 140 to 200 infections each year.
The researchers also found the economic burden of the bacteria is more than $28million a year in treatment.
They said that total annual costs linked to the pathogen are thought to be $320million, meaning it is the most expensive pathogen to treat in the US.
Previously, flooding from Hurricane Ian in Florida caused a spike in infections.
Sewage spills in coastal waters as a result of the hurricane promoted growth of the bacteria.
There were nearly as many infections in a few weeks in Florida as there were for the whole of 2021.
Six people died in Lee County as a result of wound infections being exposed to Hurricane Ian flood waters that had entered their home, or during post-storm clean-up.