CDC warns of rare bacterial infection that has claimed the lives of a dozen Americans

A health alert has been issued by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to reports of a fatal bacterial infection that thrives in warm coastal waters.

The Vibrio vulnificus bacteria can be found in raw or undercooked seafood, saltwater and brackish water. The most common way to become infected is when an open wound comes into contact with vibrio bacteria in water.

At least a dozen people have died from the infection across the country this year. About 80,000 people get vibrio infections each year. Of those infected, about 100 people will die from the infection annually in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As ocean waters warm because of climate change, the Vibrio vulnificus is migrating north, studies have found.

"The warmer water is, the more bacteria can reproduce faster," researcher Gabby Barbarite at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Florida told USA TODAY.

Infections have increased eightfold from 1988 to 2018 around the country, according to research published in March in the journal Nature Portfolio. The bacteria and infections are spreading northward up the East Coast at a rate of about 30 miles a year, researchers say.

"Cases used to be concentrated almost exclusively in the Gulf of Mexico in the southern United States," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, told USA TODAY earlier this year.

Vibrio vulnificus is "actually always in water," Manisha Juthani, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, said at a news conference Monday.

"What happens in the summertime is that bacteria like this tend to overgrow, and if you have an open wound, you should never be getting into water because there are any number of bacteria that are in the water," she said.

ICYMI: Vibrio vulnificus killed 5 people in Florida in 2023. What is the 'flesh-eating' bacteria?

What is Vibrio vulnificus?

Vibrio vulnificus, or vibriosis, is a bacterial infection known to cause human illness, according to the CDC.

The condition has been nicknamed “flesh eating” bacteria even though the death of soft tissue can be caused by more than one type of bacteria.

It’s inaccurate to call Vibrio vulnifus the “flesh-eating bacteria” because it kills but does not eat tissue. The bacteria cannot penetrate intact skin but must enter through a break in the skin.

If the bacteria enters the body through a cut or wound, it can cause necrotizing fasciitis, in which the flesh around the infection site dies. Vulnificus means "to wound" in Latin.

Some Vibrio vulnificus infections can lead to life-threatening wound infections in which the flesh around an open wound dies, according to the CDC.

Many who are infected may need intensive care or limb amputations; about 1 in 5 who get the infection die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill, the CDC says.

Vibrio bacteria naturally live in certain coastal waters year-round but tend to appear in a higher concentration between May and October. About 80% of infections occur in those months because waters are warmer, the CDC reports.

Most cases of Vibrio vulnificus occur when an open wound comes into contact with salt water or brackish water. The bacteria also can infect people if they eat raw or undercooked shellfish, which makes up about 10% of the cases reported to the CDC.

People with underlying health conditions like cancer, liver disease, diabetes, or those who are immunocompromised have a higher risk of wound infection occurring.

What are some signs you have experienced a Vibrio vulnificus infection?

Common signs or symptoms you may experience as a result of Vibrio vulnificus infection, according to the CDC:

  • Watery diarrhea, often accompanied by stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, and fever.

  • For bloodstream infection: fever, chills, dangerously low blood pressure and blistering skin lesions.

  • For wound infection, which may spread to the rest of the body: fever, redness, pain, swelling, warmth, discoloration and discharge.

How do you protect yourself from Vibrio?

Here are some tips from the CDC on how to keep you and your family safe from Vibrio:

  • Stay out of saltwater and brackish water if you have an open wound or cut. If you get a cut while you are in the water, leave the water immediately.

  • If your open wounds and cuts could come in contact with salt water, brackish water or raw or undercooked seafood, cover them with a waterproof bandage.

  • Wash open wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and clean, running water after they come in contact with saltwater, brackish water, or drippings from raw or undercooked seafood.

  • Cook raw oysters and other shellfish before eating.

  • Always wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw shellfish.

  • Seek medical attention right away for infected wounds.

Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, Mike Snider, Gabe Hauari, Katie Delk

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CDC issues warning over flesh-eating bacteria killing Americans