After the unprecedented heat waves of 2023, three East Coast states experienced an increase in severe “flesh-eating” infections, according to a recent report. The infections are linked to Vibrio vulnificus, a deadly bacterium found in coastal waters. When this microbe enters an open wound, it can cause necrotizing fasciitis, an intense infection leading to the rapid death of surrounding tissue. Ingesting the bacteria, often through raw or undercooked seafood, can result in gastrointestinal infection, manifesting as symptoms like watery diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and, in severe cases, sepsis.
V. vulnificus thrives in warm water, and during the widespread heat waves and elevated sea surface temperatures in the U.S. from June to August 2023, Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina reported numerous severe infections. A Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC documented 11 cases of V. vulnificus infection, with seven in North Carolina, two in Connecticut, and two in New York. The affected individuals were between 37 and 84 years old, with five deaths, including three from septic shock. Exposure to V. vulnificus occurred through marine or estuarine water along the U.S. Atlantic coast, handling raw seafood, or consuming raw oysters.
“While the cases can’t be solely attributed to the heat waves, the well-documented link between Vibrio bacteria infections and environmental conditions favorable to the microbe’s growth suggests a connection,” the report notes. It emphasizes preventive measures such as avoiding wound contact with brackish water, saltwater, and raw seafood, along with thoroughly cooking oysters and seafood before consumption, especially as coastal water temperatures rise.