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The Vibrio vulnificus species of bacteria thrives in warm salty or brackish water. It can cause a flesh-eating disease that sometimes results in amputations or death.
People can contract a Vibrio infection after wading in contaminated water with an open wound or eating raw shellfish from the water.
In the past 30 days, four people have been found to have been infected with flesh-eating bacteria.
Most recently, an elderly man died after contracting the bacteria in the waters near Destin, Florida. A 12-year-old girl was infected near the same area about a week prior.
This flesh-eating bacteria species is spreading beyond its traditional region, in part because of warming ocean temperatures caused by climate change.
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Yet another person on the East Coast has been infected with flesh-eating bacteria. This time, the case proved fatal.
In a July 10 Facebook post, Cheryl Bennett Wiygul wrote that her father contracted the infection, called necrotizing fasciitis, after visiting her in Okaloosa County, Florida. The flesh-eating bacteria can necessitate limb amputations and lead to death, even with treatment.
Just 12 hours after wading in the Florida water, Wiygul said, her father "woke up with a fever, chills and some cramping." He returned home to Memphis, Tennessee, where his wife rushed him to the hospital.
Doctors discovered a "terribly swollen black spot on his back," which later doubled in size, Wiygul wrote. The infection caused her father's blood to turn septic, and he died Sunday afternoon, less than 48 hours after getting out of the water.
Wiygul's father's death wasn't the only fatality linked to flesh-eating bacteria in the last month. In June, 77-year-old Lynn Fleming died from health complications related to the same infection, NBC News reported. Cases of necrotizing fasciitis have also been reported in two children, though both survived.
The species of flesh-eating bacteria at fault is called Vibrio vulnificus. People can contract Vibrio infections in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Gulf Coast after eating or handling raw shellfish or swimming in contaminated water. These infections are rare in the US, but a case report published last month in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that rising ocean temperatures may be allowing the bacteria to spread to previously unaffected waters.
"In 2017, we saw three cases of severe skin infections, which raised some flags," Dr. Katherine Doktor, an infectious-disease specialist at Cooper University Hospital who cowrote the report, told Business Insider. "In 2018, we saw two more. These five cases are significant because in the eight years prior to 2017, we only saw one case of Vibrio vulnificus at our institution."
In the past, Vibrio infections have arisen after people swam in or came into contact with seafood from the Chesapeake Bay. But all five patients in Doktor's case report were infected after they were exposed to water farther north, in the cooler Delaware Bay, or consumed crabs in the area.
Vibrio infections come on quickly
About a week before Wiygul's father entered the waters near Destin Beach (according to her Facebook post), news about a 12-year-old girl infected in the same area began to spread on social media.
Kylei Brown had waded in the water in Destin Beach in early June. Soon after, she started complaining about pain in her leg that traveled throughout her body and became more intense over time, according to a Facebook post by her mother.
Three days after their trip to the beach, Brown's family rushed her to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed her with necrotizing fasciitis. The doctors were able to save Brown's leg in an emergency surgery.
The other child infected with flesh-eating bacteria was the son of Brittany Carey, who went swimming in Maryland's Sinepuxent Bay on June 29. Two days later, he started developing "little spots" all over his body, Carey said in a Facebook post. Those spots turned into gaping, red wounds, which led doctors to diagnosed the boy with the same type of flesh-eating bacterial infection.
People can catch the bacteria by handling or consuming raw shellfish
There are multiple species of Vibrio bacteria, and most make us sick, causing diarrhea, cramping, nausea, vomiting, and fever. Usually such symptoms pass in about three days.
But V. vulnificus can cause serious bloodstream infections that are accompanied by blood-filled blisters and necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating disease, which kills body tissue.
People can get infected with V. vulnificus by eating raw or undercooked shellfish, especially oysters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can also infect the skin if an open wound is exposed to brackish water or saltwater. Some people get infections after wading through storm floodwater. There were several Vibrio-associated deaths after Hurricane Katrina, for example.
"The infection courses through the entire body, kind of like a hurricane or tornado that ravages everything," Doktor said.
Often these infections can be treated with antibiotics, but the dead tissue must sometimes be removed or the associated limb amputated to keep the infection from spreading. The bloodstream infection leads to death in 20% of cases.
Of the five patients mentioned Doktor's case report, three had to get infected tissue removed, one man had his hands and feet amputated, and one person died in the hospital.
The New England Journal of Medicine, 2018.
The bacteria's range is expanding because of warming waters
According to the authors of the case report, climate change is partially responsible for the growing range of this deadly bacteria. Last year was the warmest year on record for Earth's oceans, and warmer waters "are associated with alterations in the quantity, distribution, and seasonal windows" of V. vulnificus, the authors said.
That most likely explains why infections are occurring more frequently outside the traditional geographic boundaries of these bacteria, they wrote.
"The bacteria likes warm salty water," Doktor said, adding that cases usually peak between late July and early October, when the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay are warmest.
Doktor added that the case report was meant to alert clinicians in the Delaware Bay area that they might see more of this type of infection than they once did and to urge them to consider it as a diagnosis when patients come in with wounds matching V. vulnificus exposure.
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Vibrio isn't the only infectious disease to spread because of warming
Doktor said patients who contracted severe Vibrio infections — like those in the case report — typically had other risk factors like liver disease, diabetes, or hepatitis.
"People who don't have any health problems who are exposed to bacteria may feel a little sick," she said, though she added that it's still a good idea to avoid consuming raw or undercooked shellfish.
But Doktor added that experts who study infectious diseases weren't worried only about V. vulnificus.
"We're concerned about infections that were once considered only tropical could now occur at warmer latitudes," she said.
A study published in March forecast that climate change would most likely affect the range and distribution of mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus and dengue fever. According to that study, nearly 500 million new people could be at risk of exposure to these diseases by 2050.
If greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise unabated, nearly 1 billion new people are expected to be exposed to these disease-carrying mosquito species by the year 2080.