By: Jacquelin Sauer
Image courtesy of Michael Levine-Clark; CC-BY-NC-ND.
Vibrio vulnificus (V. vulnificus), a rare flesh-eating bacteria that belongs to the same family as the bacteria that causes cholera (V. cholerae), has killed at least a dozen Americans this year.1,2 According to available reports, V. vulnificus has claimed lives in Florida (5 deceased), Connecticut (2 deceased), New York (1 deceased), Missouri (1 deceased), and North Carolina (3 deceased).1,3 V. vulnificus can cause life-threatening wound infections that may require intensive care or limb amputations, and approximately 1 in 5 infected individuals die.4 Cases of V. vulnificus have skyrocketed across the East Coast of the United States over the last few decades in response to the ongoing climate crisis.5
V. vulnificus bacteria can be found in raw or undercooked seafood, saltwater, and brackish water.3 The bacteria enters the body through a cut or wound and can cause necrotizing fasciitis, in which the tissue around the wound dies.1 Common signs and symptoms of V. vulnificus infection include watery diarrhea, stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, low blood pressure, and blistering skin lesions.4 Wound infections may present additional signs and symptoms, such as redness, pain, swelling, warmth, discoloration, and discharge.4 Older individuals and those with underlying conditions (e.g., liver disease) or weakened immune systems are at an increased risk of V. vulnificus infection.4,5,6 V. vulnificus infection can be diagnosed by laboratory testing of blood and stool and can be treated with antibiotics or, in extreme cases, amputation to remove dead or infected tissue.4 In fatal cases, an individual may die within a day or two of becoming ill.4
Most V. vulnificus infections occur between May and October when the weather is warmer.6 Most Vibrio bacteria, including V. vulnificus, have an optimal growing temperature of 68-95°F and can grow in temperatures as high as 105°F.7 As warmer weather heats up bodies of water, the Vibrio bacteria living in those waters grow and spread exponentially. In the past, V. vulnificus bacteria and cases were concentrated almost exclusively in the Gulf of Mexico.1,5 However, V. vulnificus bacteria and infections are spreading northwards up the East Coast at a rate of 30 miles per year due to climate change and warming waters.1,6 The total reported V. vulnificus cases in the U.S. has increased from around 10 cases per year in 1988 to around 80 cases per year in 2018, with infections spreading far north to New York and Conneticuit.5,6 Global temperatures are rising, with July 2023 being the hottest month ever recorded.8 In the U.S., some areas, such as Arizona, experienced dangerously high temperatures (110°F and above) for weeks.8 The recent cases of V. vulnificus in Connecticut, in which three individuals (2 deceased; 1 recovered) contracted the bacteria from brackish waters or eating raw oysters, are the first V. vulnificus cases the state has seen in three years.6
Coastal waters will continue to warm, reaching ideal growth conditions for dangerous bacteria and microorganisms such as V. vulnificus due to the ongoing climate crisis.5,6 There are several individual and community-level public health actions that can be taken to reduce V. vulnificus infections in the U.S.
At the individual level, you can protect yourself by:
- Staying out of saltwater or brackish water if you have a wound, including wounds from a recent surgery, piercing, or tattoo.4
- Covering any wounds with a waterproof bandage if it could come into contact with saltwater, brackish water, or raw or undercooked seafood and its juices.4
- Washing wounds/cuts thoroughly with soap and clean water if they come into contact with saltwater, brackish water, raw seafood, or its juices.4
- Avoid eating undercooked or raw seafood if possible. If you want to consume raw seafood, such as oysters, you can navigate to the Food Safety Homepage at the Center for Disease Control’s website to find information on V. vulnificus and other foodborne outbreaks in local areas.
At the community level, we must explore interventions and actions to address global warming.5 If not, V. vulnificus bacteria and infections will continue to spread and increase. Additionally, we should invest in more proactive public outreach programs about V. vulnificus to better prepare and educate our community. Outreach can help individuals make safe decisions and can help medical providers and researchers better support vulnerable, at-risk populations from V. vulnificus.