The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health alert Friday warning healthcare professionals to be on the lookout for fatal infections of the “flesh-eating bacteria” Vibrio vulnificus, as warmer waters and Hurricane Idalia may cause a spike in cases.
Vibrio vulnificus can be contracted by eating raw seafood like oysters, or if an open wound comes into contact with raw seafood or its drippings, salt water or brackish water—a mix between fresh and salt water.
At least five people died from fatal vibrio infections in New York, Connecticut and North Carolina between July and August, according to the CDC report, while the Florida Department of Health reported 26 cases and five deaths statewide between January and August.
There have been three confirmed cases since July 1 in Connecticut: All three patients were hospitalized and between the ages of 60 and 80, while two confirmed they swam in brackish water in Long Island Sound and the third consumed out-of-state raw oysters, though only one died, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Only one fatal case was identified in New York while three fatal cases were reported in North Carolina, where two people were exposed to brackish water in North Carolina and another eastern state while the third person was exposed to brackish North Carolina water and ate personally caught seafood, state officials said.
The bacteria live in coastal waters, naturally separate from shellfish during hotter months and populate in the warm water, so the CDC advised in its health alert to avoid open water if people have an open wound or cut.
Hurricanes, storm surges and floods also increase exposure to the bacteria by bringing the coastal waters inland, like in 2022, when 38 cases and 11 vibriosis-related deaths were reported after Hurricane Ian.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Though no vibrio cases have been reported since Hurricane Idalia, Florida Department of Health press secretary Jae Williams told NBC the state began warning residents of potential infection “as soon as the state of emergency was declared.”
“People should consider the potential risk of consuming raw oysters and exposure to salt or brackish water and take appropriate precautions,” Manisha Juthani, the Connecticut Department of Health commissioner said.
80,000. That’s how many Americans the CDC estimates get a vibrio infection each year, resulting in 100 deaths.
Though anyone can get sick from the bacteria, the elderly and people who have diabetes, HIV, liver disease, thalassemia or cancer are the most at risk of developing severe complications. People who had recent stomach surgery, take medicine to reduce stomach acid and receive immune-supressing therapy also face a risk. Vibrio symptoms include watery diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, fever and vomiting. Wound infection symptoms include pain, swelling, redness, discharge, discoloration and warmth. Blood infection symptoms may present as chills, fever, blistering skin infection or dangerously low blood pressure. Though there’s no cure for vibrio infection, antibiotics and other treatments are used to treat skin infection from spreading and other symptoms, like shock. These treatments include fluid drainage, cleaning dead skin from wounds, oxygen therapy, medication for low pressure, intravenous fluids and potential amputation. There’s about a one in four chance a vibrio wound infection will turn fatal, researchers report. Sometimes, infection can turn into necrotizing fasciitis, a severe, “flesh-eating” infection that causes the skin around a wound to die. In other severe cases, vibrio infection can lead to septicemia, a very fatal bloodstream infection that can lead to sepsis, which only has a 50% survival rate.
U.S. vibrio infections on the East Coast have increased over the past 30 years, rising from 10 infections a year in 1988 to 80 in 2018, according to research published in March in Scientific Reports. Infections north of Georgia used to be rare and were typically localized to the southern Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. However, the researchers pointed to warmer weather and an aging population as the causes for an increase in cases on the East Coast. They predicted cases could spike as high as 140 and 200 cases on the East Coast every year by the end of the century. The U.S. experienced a record-breaking summer this year, seeing over 6,500 daily heat records and sometimes fatally hot temperatures. Parts of the North Atlantic ocean witnessed a category four marine heat wave in July, causing periods of unusually extreme temperatures and warm waters. Ocean temperatures were warming up 24% faster last decade compared to previous ones, according to a 2019 study published in Science.