Flesh-eating bacteria is on the rise in the Gulf of Mexico, as waters warm due to climate change.
At least three people along Florida’s Gulf Coast over the last month have developed necrotizing fasciitis, a complication of an infection caused by the bacteria known as vibrio vulnificus which can result in “flesh-eating” symptoms.
Vibrio vulnificus lives in brackish, high-salinity waters with surface temperatures above 13C. It can cause infections via swimming or consuming and handling raw shellfish from contaminated water. People with open wounds and compromised immune systems are particularly at risk.
In July, a 12-year-old girl suffered from the “flesh-eating” symptoms after wading into the Gulf in Destin, Florida with a cut on her foot. She survived.
But a father from Memphis, Tennessee who was recovering from cancer lost his life to the virus. 12 hours after getting into the water in Okaloosa County, Florida, he “woke up with a fever, chills and some cramping." He returned to Memphis and went to a hospital, where doctors found "terribly swollen black spot on his back.” His blood turned septic, and he died less than 48 hours after leaving the water.
A 77-year-old woman also died from the infection, in June. She entered the water in Central Florida, at a beach on the Gulf in St Petersburg. She got cut on the shin while swimming. 24 hours after exiting the water, she felt pain; the day after, her leg became red and swollen. It eventually turned black; the infection kill her body’s soft tissue.
“Her entire body is septic,” her daughter-in-law wrote in a Facebook post chronicling the woman’s death. She died after a week in Hospice care.
The virus comes on quickly, with pain, nausea, and flu-like symptoms, and quickly destroys the body.
According to Dr Katherine Doktor, an infectious-disease specialist at Cooper University Hospital who recently published a report on the subject, increasingly warm waters in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Gulf Coast are spiking cases of severe incidents related to the bacteria.
"In 2017, we saw three cases of severe skin infections, which raised some flags," Dr Doktor 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."
The bacteria has also been spotted in water further north. A case was identified last week in the Tennessee River, when a man kayaking North Alabama contracted it. He survived, as did a child who contracted Vibrio while swimming in the Sinepuxent Bay near Ocean City, Maryland in June.
"I know we’ve all seen these cases in the Delaware bay but now my little guy got this from being in the bay right by Hoopers,'' the child’s mother wrote in a Facebook post warning others of the bacteria. "Please be careful out there guys and if you start seeing wounds such as these please get somewhere fast!"