Flesh-Eating Bacteria Might Be Coming to a Beach Near You

V. vulnificus, a flesh eating bacteria, has become more common in coastal regions like Delaware Bay.
Christopher McFadden

A new study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine might turn you off going to the beach forever. Its authors, from Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, have noted a "spike" in infections from V. vulnificus, a flesh-eating bacteria.

Rising average sea temperatures are blamed for this worrying spread of the bacteria into historically colder waters. 


What is V. vulnificus?

Vibrio vulnificus, or V. vulnificus, is a species of gram-negative, motile, curved-rod shaped pathogenic bacteria that tends to inhabit marine environments like estuaries, brackish ponds, and coastal areas. 

It tends to be found in the Gulf of Mexico and prefers seawaters over 13 degrees Celsius.

This nasty little critter also happens to be related to the bacteria, V. cholerae, that causes cholera - nice family.

Any person unfortunate enough to be infected by this bacteria will quickly develop sepsis and expanding cellulitis (infection below the skin surface). In rare cases, especially where patients have a compromised or suppressed immune systems, the infection can result in necrotizing wounds

For hosts with chronic liver disease, the infection can result in infection of the bloodstream. This usually results in a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions.

For healthy individuals, infection usually only results in vomiting, diarrhea, and general abdominal pain.


V. vulnificus tends to enter the body through ingestion (usually undercooked or raw shellfish) or from open wounds. 

What the Study Found

The authors of the study found that between 2008 and 2016, only one case of infection from the bacteria was treated at their hospital. However, the summers of 2017 and 2018 saw that number "jump" to a total of five cases.

Each of the patients shared one or two common characteristics: an injury whilst crabbing and/or consuming the raw or undercooked shellfish.

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All cases were from people exposed to water or seafood from Delaware Bay (between Delaware and New Jersey).

Several cases were only treatable by emergency surgery to remove necrotizing flesh or, in one particularly bad cases, amputation of infected limbs.

flesh eating bacteria delaware bay
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Most patients did recover thanks to the treatment they received, but one patient, a 64-year-old who damaged his hand whilst cleaning crabs, died from a heart attack.

Of the patients treated at the hospital, three had hepatitis B or C, and another suffered from diabetes. 

Is There Anything to Worry About for Locals?

While the study's authors point out that the appearance of this bacteria in coastal areas around Delaware is worrying, so long as you take certain precautions, you should be fine. 

Obvious things include not swimming or crabbing in brackish pools with open wounds. You should always use waterproof bandages if you have suffered an injury and simply 'must' enter the water.

If you do catch or decide to eat any shellfish from the region, make sure it is well cooked and definitely do not eat it raw. 


If you do have a suppressed immune system, suffer from hepatitis, chronic liver disease or diabetes, it might be best to avoid eating shellfish or entering contaminated waters altogether.

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