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"Flesh-Eating" Vibrio Vulnificus Bacteria Warning After Five Deaths

Unusually high temperatures and extreme weather events have increased the chances of infection from these deadly bacteria.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Science Writer

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

A blue gloved hand holding a petri dish containing the V. vulnificus bacterium.

Vibrio vulnificus infects hundreds of people along the US East Coast each year, but the numbers are rising as a result of climate change. 

Image credit: Arpon Pongkasetkam/

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued an urgent warning after five people were killed by flesh-eating bacteria that live in waters along the East Coast of the US. 

The CDC’s health warning is designed to alert US healthcare providers, laboratories, and public health departments about recent infections by Vibrio vulnificus (V. vulnificus). In particular, healthcare professionals are being urged to consider the bacteria as a possible cause of infected wounds in patients exhibiting symptoms after being exposed to coastal waters near the Gulf of Mexico or the East Coast. 


There are many species of Vibrio bacteria, a dozen of which are harmful to humans. In the US, V. parahaemolyticus is the most common cause of infection from this type of bacteria and is responsible for about 40 percent of reported cases of Vibrio infections. Typically, infected people will experience diarrhea or similar stomach issues, such as cramps, nausea, and vomiting. The infection can also cause body chills and a fever. However, V. vulnificus is known to be much more dangerous. 

This species of bacteria lives in coastal waters, including saltwater and brackish water – water made up of both fresh and saltwater. People can become infected if they have an open wound exposed to the bacterium in water, or if they eat raw or undercooked shellfish. In most cases, people become infected after the latter, but the category of “open wound” should also be taken seriously, as it includes wounds caused by recent surgery and tattooing, along with everyday cuts and scrapes. 

V. vulnificus infections can be fatal and have been responsible for the deaths of five people from across the US East Coast in the period between July and August this year. Once infected, the bacteria move quickly and can make you sick within a few days. Infection is especially dangerous for people who have other underlying health issues, such as diabetes, liver disease, or immunocompromising conditions (weaker immune systems).  

According to a statement released by the CDC, “V. vulnificus wound infections have a short incubation period and are characterized by necrotizing skin and soft tissue infection”. If it is not treated, the infection can spread and cause severe blood poisoning


“Many people with V. vulnificus wound infection require intensive care or surgical tissue removal,” the statement adds.

The bacteria normally thrive in warmer waters, especially in the months between May and October. They also tend to prefer marine environments with lower salt levels, such as river estuaries. However, infection rates in the US have increased eightfold from 1988 to 2018 due to climate warming. In addition, the typical northern geographic range of infections has increased by 48 kilometers (29.8 miles) per year. 

The CDC is urging local authorities to display signage to warn of potential infections. It also states that people should avoid contact with saltwater and brackish water if they have an open wound or cut and should leave the water immediately if they are injured while swimming. 

If there is a chance that an open wound will come into contact with potentially contaminated water or raw or undercooked seafood, then it suggests that you should make sure it is covered with a waterproof bandage. Equally, seafood should be thoroughly cooked, and any exposed wounds should be washed with soap and clean water. 


Ultimately, if you are infected, the CDC recommends seeking medical attention as quickly as possible. 

"People who are at increased risk for V. vulnificus infection should exercise caution when engaging in coastal water activities," the CDC states. "Prompt treatment is crucial to reduce mortality from severe V. vulnificus infection."

The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.   


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