Rare Flesh-Eating Bacteria Claims Lives in the U.S.

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In a concerning development, the flesh-eating bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, has been responsible for the deaths of five individuals in Florida this year, as reported by the state’s health department. The bacteria, which thrives in warm brackish waters where rivers and oceans converge, can enter the human body through open wounds or by consuming raw seafood. 

According to USA Today, the Tampa area in Florida has seen five fatalities due to this bacterium. Additionally, three more deaths have been reported in Connecticut and New York. The bacteria, which can be found in raw seafood, saltwater, and brackish water, has caused two deaths in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located, as per the Florida Department of Health. One death each has been reported in the neighboring Pasco, Polk, and Sarasota counties, bringing Florida’s total cases to 26 this year. 

New York’s Governor, Kathy Hochul, recently announced the detection of the bacteria in a deceased individual from Long Island. The exact cause of infection is still under investigation by New York health officials. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, three individuals, aged between 60 and 80, contracted the bacteria in July. Tragically, two of them have since passed away. 

One of the infected individuals from Connecticut had consumed raw oysters from an establishment outside the state, while the other two had exposure to brackish waters in the Long Island Sound. The Florida health department has advised against entering warm brackish waters with open wounds, as the bacteria can cause infections through such entry points. 

Dr. Eric Shamas, an emergency medicine physician, emphasized that while the risk exists, such severe infections are rare. It’s also worth noting that while Vibrio vulnificus is often referred to as the “flesh-eating bacteria,” it doesn’t consume tissue. Instead, if it enters the body through a wound, it can cause necrotizing fasciitis, leading to the death of the surrounding flesh. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has highlighted that some Vibrio vulnificus infections can result in life-threatening wound infections, requiring intensive care or even limb amputations. Approximately 20% of those infected succumb to the disease, sometimes within a day or two of showing symptoms. Annually, the U.S. sees around 80,000 vibrio infections, with about 100 proving fatal. 

Climate change and the resultant warming of ocean waters have caused Vibrio vulnificus to migrate northwards. Research indicates that infections have increased eight-fold between 1988 and 2018 in the U.S. due to the warming of coastal waters. The bacteria’s range is expanding northwards along the East Coast at a rate of roughly 30 miles annually. 

To prevent infections, the CDC recommends avoiding saltwater or brackish water if one has open wounds. It’s also advised to avoid consuming raw or undercooked seafood, especially oysters. Symptoms of a Vibrio vulnificus infection can range from watery diarrhea, fever, and chills to severe skin lesions and low blood pressure. 

Recent cases have also been reported in North Carolina, where three residents succumbed to the infection. Another case involved a 54-year-old man from Missouri who died after consuming raw oysters. The rise in cases and the bacteria’s migration northwards underscore the importance of awareness and preventive measures, especially as coastal waters continue to warm due to climate change. 

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