Climate change could increase rates of ‘flesh-eating’ infection

Youth Against Carbon discuss climate change

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Climate change could lead to a spread of potentially fatal infections caused by bacteria found along parts of the coast of the United States, scientists have warned. Vibrio vulnificus bacteria – also known as a “flesh-eating” bacteria – grow in warm shallow coastal waters and can infect a cut or insect bite during contact with seawater. But cases of infection have increased eight times in just 30 years, promoting concerns about rising temperatures globally.

A new study led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) shows that the number of vibrio vulnificus (v. vulnificus) infections along the east coast of the US, has gone up from 10 to 80 per year over a three-decade period.

The team also found that every year cases occur further north.

In the late 1980s, cases were found in the Gulf of Mexico and along the southern Atlantic coast but were rare north of the state of Georgia. Today they can be found as far north as Philadelphia.

The researchers, who published their findings in Scientific Reports journal, predict that by 2041 to 2060 infections may spread to encompass major population centres around New York.

Combined with a growing and increasingly elderly population, who are more susceptible to infection, annual case numbers could double.

By 2081 to 2100, infections may be present in every Eastern US state under medium-to-high future emissions and warming scenarios.

Someone infected with v. vulnificus has a one-in-five chance of dying. It is also the most expensive marine pathogen in the US to treat.

The illness peaks in the summer and sees the bacteria spread rapidly and severely damage the person’s flesh.

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As a result, it is commonly called a “flesh-eating” illness and many survivors require limb amputation as a result.

Lead study author, Elizabeth Archer, explained: “The projected expansion of infections highlights the need for increased individual and public health awareness in the areas affected.

“This is crucial as prompt action when symptoms occur is necessary to prevent major health consequences.

“Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are changing our climate and the impacts may be especially acute on the world’s coastlines, which provide a major boundary between natural ecosystems and human populations and are an important source of human disease.

“We show that by the end of the 21st century, v. vulnificus infections will extend further northwards but how far north will depend upon the degree of further warming and therefore on our future greenhouse gas emissions.

“If emissions are kept low, then cases may extend northwards only as far as Connecticut.

“If emissions are high, infections are predicted to occur in every US state on the east coast. By the end of the 21st century we predict that around 140 to 200 v. vulnificus infections may be reported each year.”

The research team suggests that individuals and health authorities could be warned in real time about particularly risky environmental conditions through marine or vibrio-specific early warning systems.

Co-author Professor Iain Lake said: “The observation that cases of v. vulnificus have expanded northwards along the east coast of the US is an indication of the effect that climate change is already having on human health and the coastline.

“Knowing where cases are likely to occur in future should help health services plan for the future.”

The study is the first to map how the locations of v. vulnificus cases have changed along the eastern coastline of the US.

As part of the study, information on where people caught v. vulnificus infection was obtained from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

This allowed the team to map how cases of v. vulnificus have extended northwards over 30 years from 1988 to 2018.

Symptoms of infection can include:

  • Watery diarrhoea, often accompanied by 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, discolouration and discharge.

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