Disease & Illness

Experts Warn That Flesh-Eating Bacteria May Be Spreading To Seafood And Beaches

This is scary. Here's what you need to know.

For many of us, summertime means beautiful trips to the beach and delicious, fresh seafood. But you may want to exercise some caution. A new report says that flesh-eating bacteria is spreading to the East Coast.

Scientists say that climate change is behind this new development, with warmer weather helping to spread Vibrio vulnificus bacteria to regions of the country where it typically would not be found. Vibrio vulnificus is often described as “flesh-eating” (or “necrotizing fasciitis,” to those in the medical field) because the bacteria can destroy your skin and muscle tissue.

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The new report, which was published in June 2019 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, explains that alarming cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections are popping up in regions of the country where infections used to be very rare.

The authors of the study examined five cases linked to V. vulnificus flesh-eating bacteria in Delaware Bay. In each case, the patient exhibited symptoms of V. vulnificus infection after either being exposed to the water in the Delaware Bay or eating seafood sourced from the location.

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Thankfully, each of these patients quickly sought medical treatment and survived their brush with this scary infection. However, it is important to be aware that new parts of the country might be impacted by the spread of this flesh-eating bacteria.

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“In the eight years before 2017, only one case of V. vulnificus was seen at our hospital,” explains Katherine Doktor, MD, who is one of the authors of the study and an infectious disease specialist at Cooper University Health Care. “As a result of our experience, we believe clinicians should be aware of the possibility that V. vulnificus infections are occurring more frequently outside traditional geographic areas.”

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To prevent V. vulnificus infections, you should avoid raw or undercooked seafood, especially oysters. In particular, be cautious with seafood that you know has been sourced from areas with recent cases of V. vulnificus infections. Wash your hands thoroughly when cooking or handling seafood.

If you have an open wound, you should also avoid contact with salt water or brackish water (which is when salt water and fresh water mix). Brackish water is commonly found in estuaries such as the Delaware Bay. If you can’t avoid contact with water, at least cover it with a waterproof bandage to limit your wound’s contact with the water and possible bacteria.

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The CDC estimates that 80,000 people suffer from vibriosis, caused by up to 20 or so different types of Vibrio bacteria — including V. vulnificus — each year. About 52,000 of those get it from contaminated seafood. Around 500 people are hospitalized and 100 people die of Vibrio bacteria infections annually. Eighty percent of infections occur between May and October when the weather is warm and the bacteria can thrive and spread.

V. vulnificus causes more serious medical issues than other species of the bacteria, with those who contract infections requiring intensive care or even limb amputations. About 1 in 5 sufferers of V. vulnificus infections will die.

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Symptoms of V. vulnificus include gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramping, as well as fever and chills. These symptoms will probably appear within 24 hours and last for several days. In more severe cases, blood poisoning and organ failure may occur.

If you believe you may have been infected by V. vulnificus, seek medical treatment immediately. Be aware that people with compromised immune systems, such as those who are ill or elderly, are most at risk of becoming sick from this bacteria. Those with liver disease, cancer, diabetes or HIV are among higher-risk individuals, as are those who are undergoing immune suppression therapy or have had recent stomach surgery.

Many cases are treated with antibiotics but any dead tissue will have to be removed.

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To learn more about this bacterial infection, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.