Science Says: Climate Change Could Give You Diarrhea

Pervasive jellyfish and increasingly acidic waters are two anticipated effects of climate change on the world’s oceans. Research published yesterday in Nature Climate Change unveiled yet another threat: waterborne bacteria that can cause serious stomach trouble.   

They found that the number of vibrio infections rises with peaks in sea surface temperature. In other words: the warmer the ocean, the more people with food poisoning.  

A team of international experts found that manmade climate change is triggering temperature rises in the Baltic Sea, and consequently increasing the rates of Vibrio outbreaks in Northern Europe.  

Vibrio is a group of bacteria found in warm marine environments. It can cause a range of infections, from gastroenteritis-like symptoms (watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, fever, and chills) to cholera, which can be life-threatening if not treated promptly.

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People can become infected with vibrio by eating raw or undercooked shellfish; some can also contract infections by bathing in ocean water. 

Biologists, marine scientists, and bacteriologists on the research team examined Baltic Sea temperatures and satellite data, along with medical data that tracked the frequency of infections in the region.

They found that the number of vibrio infections rises with peaks in sea surface temperature. In other words: the warmer the ocean, the more people with food poisoning.  

"The big apparent increases that we've seen in cases during heatwave years tend to indicate that climate change is indeed driving infections," Craig Baker-Austin, study coauthor and researcher at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, told Reuters.

Thirty million people live within 30 miles of the Baltic Sea, and their proximity to its warm waters could “substantially increase clinical risk,” according to the study’s authors. 

While these 30 million people might be in the firing line, the results have implications for the rest of us.

Researchers focused on the Baltic Sea because it is the fastest warming marine ecosystem on the planet, which makes the Baltic a good indicator of the havoc manmade climate change will wreak on the world’s oceans in the future.

In fact, it’s already starting. The study reported an increase in vibrio infections in temperate and cold regions, including Peru, Chile, Israel, the U.S. Pacific northwest, and northwest Spain—all places that have seen a pattern of recent warming.

And in addition to warming, climate change will affect rainfall and runoff, thus decreasing the saline content of estuaries and coastal wetlands, which—guess what?—makes many types of marine bacteria thrive and proliferate.

Major public health interventions will be needed, the researchers caution. They recommended the creation of a centralized reporting system for vibrio and cholera outbreaks across Northern Europe, as well as the development of an “early warning system,” for other areas that are likely to see an uptick in dangerous infections.

How worried are you about climate change? What are you doing to reduce your personal carbon footprint? Tell us in the comments.

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