Flesh-eating bacteria? It’s like we’re in a horror movie. Unfortunately, the bacteria sweeping the East Coast is real, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as they are adamantly warning healthcare providers to be on the lookout for it. The CDC released an urgent health alert late last week that urges doctors to watch for symptoms of vibrio vulnificus bacteria infection, which can cause a flesh-eating disease after six people in Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina developed “severe and fatal” infections in during the summer months. “Many of these infections were acquired after an open wound was exposed to coastal waters in those states,” the alert reads.
The alert continued: “Amid increasing water temperatures and extreme weather events—e.g., heat waves, flooding, and severe storms—associated with climate change, people at increased risk for V. vulnificus infection should exercise caution when engaging in coastal water activities. Prompt treatment is crucial to reduce mortality from severe V. vulnificus infection.”
Vibrio vulnificus bacteria can cause severe wound infections that can lead to a condition known as necrotizing fasciitis, which is a flesh-eating disease—which is called “flesh-eating bacteria.” The Vibrio vulnificus bacteria can be found in raw or undercooked seafood, saltwater, and brackish water. The most common way to become infected is when an open wound comes into contact with the bacteria in water.
At least a dozen people have died from the infection in the United States this year. About 80,000 people get vibrio infections each year. According to the CDC, 100 people will die from the infection annually in the U.S. Many who are infected may need intensive care or limb amputations; about 1 in 5 who get the infection die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill, the CDC reports.
As ocean waters warm because of climate change, the Vibrio vulnificus is migrating north, studies have found. According to research published in Nature Portfolio in March, infections around the country have increased eightfold from 1988 to 2018. Researchers report that the bacteria and infections spread northward up the East Coast at about 30 miles a year.
Here are some signs you have experienced a Vibrio vulnificus infection?
Common signs or symptoms you may experience as a result of Vibrio vulnificus infection, according to the CDC:
Watery diarrhea, stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, and fever.
For bloodstream infection: fever, chills, low blood pressure, and blistering skin lesions.
For wound infection, fever, redness, pain, swelling, warmth, discoloration, and discharge may spread to the rest of the body.
How do you protect yourself from Vibrio?
View some tips from the CDC on how to keep you and your family safe from Vibrio:
Stay out of saltwater and brackish water if you have an open wound or cut. If you get a cut while in the water, leave the water.
If your open wounds and cuts could come in contact with salt water, brackish water, or raw or undercooked seafood, cover them with a waterproof bandage.
Wash open wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and clean, running water after they come in contact with saltwater, brackish water, or drippings from raw or undercooked seafood.
Cook raw oysters and other shellfish before eating.
Always wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw shellfish.
Seek medical attention right away for infected wounds.