Is “Flesh-Eating” Bacteria On the Rise? Here’s Everything To Know About The Deadly Microbe

Cases and deaths associated with Vibrio vulnificus have been reported in several states along the East Coast. These may increase with climate change.

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Health officials are sounding the alarm after three individuals in Connecticut and New York died from a rare but life-threatening “flesh-eating” bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus.

The bacteria, whose species naturally live in coastal seawater, cause an infection called vibriosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 800,000 people get infected, and 100 die each year from eating raw or undercooked oysters or other seafood or from exposing injured skin to brackish waters (when freshwater from rivers or lakes meets saltwater in the ocean).

Vibrio vulnificus tends to overgrow during the summer months, but what’s been concerning is where the bacteria are popping up. Cases tend to be concentrated in the Gulf of Mexico but now seem to be creeping along the East Coast, likely due to climate change. A March 2023 study published in the journal Nature found the bacteria is advancing northward at about 30 miles per year.

Among the cases in Connecticut, which resulted in two deaths, one patient had eaten raw oysters from an out-of-state restaurant. The other two, who had open cuts or wounds, reported exposure to salt or brackish water in the Long Island Sound, the state’s Department of Public Health said in a press release. It’s not yet known how the deceased individual in New York contracted the bacteria, whether it was in New York or elsewhere.

In other states, deaths have been reported in Florida (26 cases in 2023 with five deaths) and in North Carolina.

Signs of Vibrio vulnificus infection depend on how the bacteria get into the body. If ingested, you might expect all or any one of these gastrointestinal symptoms within 24 hours: watery diarrhea, stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, or fever, according to the CDC. Untreated vibriosis can lead to more serious illness, with the bacteria getting into the blood, causing sepsis and severe blistering skin lesions.

If the bacteria enter through injured skin — whether an open cut or wound or even a recent piercing or tattoo — this results in a far more serious infectious condition called necrotizing fasciitis, where the tissue around the injury dies. These symptoms include fever, discoloration, fluid leaking from the wound, and swelling that can lead to amputation and, ultimately, death.

The best way to prevent Vibrio vulnificus infection is by exercising caution. Steer clear of eating raw seafood like oysters, which are known to carry the bacteria. Contrary to popular belief, neither hot sauce nor lemon juice will kill the pathogen — only cooking it will, and the right temperature you need depends on how you are cooking it. According to the CDC, for "shucked" oysters, any of the following methods will kill the deadly bacteria:

  • Boil for at least 3 minutes
  • Fry in oil for at least 3 minutes at 375°F
  • Broil 3 inches from heat for 3 minutes, or
  • Bake at 450°F for 10 minutes

Further, if you have any kind of open wound, stay out of brackish water. If you do go in, however, cover the wound in a waterproof bandage and wash yourself afterward with soap and water. These precautions are especially pertinent for at-risk individuals such as the immunocompromised, patients with liver disease, or those taking medications to decrease stomach acid levels.

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