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The Vibrio vulnificus bacteria has the East Coast on high alert with three confirmed deaths this summer.
Warming coastal waters offers a chance for the bacteria to naturally thrive.
Swimming in the waters with an open cut or eating contaminated raw shellfish pose the highest dangers.
Three deaths in the Northeast from an uncommon flesh-eating bacterium came from both swimming in infected warm water and contaminated raw shellfish. That’s put the entire region on alert, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issuing a warning on the growing dangers of the bacteria.
And it’s best to take this seriously, as Vibrio vulnificus is known to kill humans in as little as one to two days.
Two deaths in Connecticut, one in New York, and a potential fourth in New York are all linked to Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that grows in warm, brackish water and can live on raw shellfish.
This is a known danger in the warm waters of the south, but record-breaking water temperatures have spread the issue north. “While rare, the Vibrio bacteria has, unfortunately, made it to this region and can be extraordinarily dangerous,” New York governor Kathy Hochul said in a statement.
“I was looking at the sea surface temperature maps, and everywhere south of Cape Cod is getting into territory that’s above 20°C, which is when [Vibrio] really starts to become more infections,” Karen Knee, associate professor and water-quality expert at American University, tells Wired. “And that’s most of the swimming waters on the East Coast.”
The CDC issued an emergency health alert for severe Vibrio vulnificus infections on September 1 thanks to warming coastal waters. The CDC says Vibrio causes about 80,000 illnesses each year, with most people dealing with an infection featuring diarrhea and sometimes stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills. It is the V. vulnificus that can cause life-threatening infections, with one in five infected people dying, sometimes within one or two days of becoming ill.
Vibrio naturally live in coastal waters, including salt water and brackish water, which is a mixture of salt and fresh water. More than half the illnesses caused by Vibrio are linked to eating raw or undercooked shellfish, but that still leaves tens of thousands of cases tied to swimming in infected waters with an open wound or small cut.
In Connecticut, the two deaths are tied to swimming in the Long Island Sound. The confirmed New York death is connected to eating raw oysters. All three individuals were aged between 60 and 80, according to CNN.
A 2023 study from the United Kingdom shows that Vibrio is growing more common in North America, thanks to warming waters. The study says the last 30 years shows an eightfold increase in infections with an 18 percent mortality rate. And every year the cases creep north—roughly 30 miles per year.
What was once a more isolated issue due to temperatures is now growing, both in location and duration. “We’ve gone from them being mainly an issue from late July through early October, to being present April through November,” Geoffrey Scott, chair of environmental sciences at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, tells Wired.
As the risks grow, experts warn of the need for, well, warnings, so that when a small infection starts, people seek medical attention—antibiotics, specifically—immediately and don’t wait until the next day, when the flesh eating may have already started.
“People down here may have a buddy who got cut on a shell or while fishing, and their finger’s a little red and swollen, and somebody will be like, ‘Don’t sleep on that. I had a buddy who waited till the next morning and he lost his hand,’” Brett Froelich, microbiologist and assistant professor at Virginia’s George Mason University, tells Wired. “Other people in other locations don’t know that. They will absolutely think, ‘Well, I hope it gets better in the morning,’ and in the morning, their hand is black.”
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