Warmer sea brings flesh-eating bacteria to US coast

Climate change may be bringing a potentially deadly ocean-dwelling bacteria capable of causing carnivorous infections along the US east coast. Researchers sounded the alarm yesterday (23), in the latest addition to the long list of ways in which global warming threatens not only the environment, but also health and well-being.


  • Harmful Vibrio, a bacterium in the same family as the one that causes cholera, naturally lives in warm, salty water and can infect wounds, bites or cuts in contact with seawater.Infections are rare but can be life-threatening – it can kill up to one in five infected people, sometimes within just a day or two of becoming ill – and is capable of causing necrotizing fasciitis, the medical term for a “flesh-eating” infection.
  • “Infections have been rising steadily along the US East Coast for the past 30 years, according to research published in Scientific Reports yesterday, rising from about 10 a year to 80 a year.*The researchers said the infections used to be located in the Gulf of Mexico and along the southern Atlantic coast and were rare north of Georgia, but an analysis of CDC data revealed that they are steadily moving north and can now be found north of Philadelphia.
  • Taking into account warming temperatures and an aging population – the elderly are much more susceptible to infections – the researchers predict that the northward expansion of the bacteria could reach as far as densely populated areas around New York in the next 20 years and the number of annual infections will double.
  • Using less optimistic climate models, where carbon emissions are not kept low, the researchers said infections could increase by 140 to 200 cases a year by the end of the century and spread to all East Coast states.


Elizabeth Archer, a postgraduate researcher at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom and lead author of the study, told Forbes that the findings point to the broader impact that climate change is having on the environment. Given its sensitivity to temperature, Archer said Vibrio is “a kind of microbial barometer of climate change”, adding that the research highlights how “it is important to care for the coastal environment”.


Bacteria are a natural part of the coastal ecosystem and elimination is neither feasible nor reasonable. “We can’t just eradicate them from the environment they naturally occur in,” Archer said, emphasizing the need to prevent infections in the first place.


The study cannot definitively attribute the northward migration of Vibrio to human-caused climate change, although forward-looking predictions take this into account. The bacteria is also present in other parts of the US, for example on the West Coast, but the researchers didn’t examine how that changed over time.