Global warming linked to spread of coastal bacteria: study – CTV News
Global warming could lead to a spread of possibly fatal infections deriving from bacteria in warm coastal waters.
This is according to a new study by the U.K.’s University of East Anglia (UEA), which assessed the bacteria known as Vibrio vulnificus and its spread along the East Coast of the U.S. over three decades.
The bacterial spread they evaluated, which peaks in the summer and thrives in warm climates, causes what is commonly called a “flesh-eating” illness because of the way the bacteria severely damages a person’s flesh, often resulting in the amputation of limbs among those who survive. The bacteria can infect cuts or insect bites during exposure to seawater.
According to this research, infections from this specific bacteria have increased to 80 per year as of 2018, compared to 10 infections in 1988. Cases are also being identified further north every year.
In the late 1980s, infections from Vibrio vulnificus were mostly reported in the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic coast, but now are being discovered as far north as Philadelphia. Scientists predict that sustained planetary warming may be the root cause of this bacterial migration.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, highlights the potential threat of this marine pathogen remaining unchecked and warns of the potential for cases to double in the coming decades. Despite the fact that total number of infections is still considered low, the consequences of a sustained spread of this bacteria could be lethal, researchers say. If infected, scientists estimate a one-in-five chance of dying.
Elizabeth Archer, a researcher with UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences,said she believes the study’s projections underline the need for increased individual and public health awareness in areas with high risk of infection.
“This is crucial as prompt action when symptoms occur is necessary to prevent major health consequences,” she said in a press release issued March 23.
Archer added that, on a larger scale, the damages of climate change can exacerbate the spread of pathogens and life-threatening illnesses in the coming years if no action is taken to curb emissions.
“Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are changing our climate and the impacts may be especially acute on the world’s coastlines, which provide a major boundary between natural ecosystems and human populations and are an important source of human disease,” she said.
Archer pointed out that the research shows that the spread of Vibrio vulnificus infections and northwards bacterial expansion are closely linked to increasing temperatures that are the result of a warming planet.
“By the end of the 21st Century we predict that around 140-200 Vibrio vulnificus infections may be reported each year,” she said in the news release.
Archer and the research team call for active control initiatives aimed at spreading awareness towards at-risk demographics, along with coastal signage during high-risk periods that can alert people about the increasing threat.
The researchers also recommend that health authorities be notified in real-time about fluctuating environmental risks regarding coastal pathogens through marine warning systems that are capable of detecting bacterial contamination in water samples.
James Oliver, a co-author of the study with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said in the press release that this research “not only ties global climate change to disease but provides strong evidence for the environmental spread of this extremely deadly bacterial pathogen.”