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Flesh-Eating Bacteria Outbreak Threat Looms Large on US East Coast: Report


Apr 12, 2023

Last Updated: April 12, 2023, 19:21 IST

The study used a 30-year database of V. vulnificus cases in the Eastern US.

By 2041–2060, the coastline where V. vulnificus infections are present is likely to increase by over 1000 km.

As climate change continues to wreak havoc on our planet, its impact on the spread of infectious diseases is becoming increasingly clear. A new study led by the University of East Anglia (UEA), published in the journal Scientific Reports, warns that continued warming of the climate will likely result in a surge of potentially fatal infections caused by bacteria found along the coast of the United States, posing a growing threat to those living in East Coast areas. The study sheds light on the alarming rise in the number and spread of Vibrio vulnificus infections, a flesh-eating bacteria that can enter the body through an open wound during contact with seawater.

The study reveals that there has been a significant increase in the number of V. vulnificus infections in the past 30 years along the East Coast of the US, which is known as a global hotspot for such cases. The research indicates that V. vulnificus is a type of bacterial pathogen that thrives in warm and low-salinity waters, and although infections due to seawater exposure are rare, they have a high mortality rate. Using a 30-year database of V. vulnificus cases for the Eastern US, researchers developed an ecological niche model that identifies links to oceanographic and climate data. The model was then used to predict future disease distribution using data simulated by seven Global Climate Models (GCMs) that belong to the newest Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP6).

The study findings suggest that the distribution and incidence of V. vulnificus infections in the Eastern USA will be greatly affected by climate change. This is expected to be due to the warming of coastal waters, which provides a suitable environment for the bacteria to thrive. In addition, higher temperatures are likely to lead to an increase in coastal recreational activities, further exacerbating the situation. By 2041–2060, the coastline where V. vulnificus infections are present increases by over 1000 km under both SSP126 and SSP370 and both tmean and tmax models. This shift increases the population at risk in the densely populated coastal regions of New Jersey and New York. Alongside population growth and an increasingly elderly population, this translates into a doubling of cases by 2041–2060.

The projections reveal that by 2081–2100, the coastline where V. vulnificus infections are present increases by another 1000 kilometres, encompassing every state along the Eastern USA coastline under medium-to-high future emissions and warming. However, this shift occurs in less densely populated areas, and within SSP370, there are population reductions under this “regional rivalry” scenario.

The study stresses the need for increased individual and public health awareness in these areas and highlights the urgent need for action to mitigate climate change. The projected expansion of V. vulnificus wound infections is alarming, and it underscores the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit the impact of climate change on public health.

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