Flesh-eating Bacteria Death in Maryland 2016: What to know about Vibrio vulnificus

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On Sept. 15, Michael Funk diedfour days after Vibrio vulnificus, a flesh-eating bacteria that occurs naturally in slightly salty, warm water, entered a cut in his leg.

Man's death from flesh-eating bacteria like a "horror movie"

His wife told the Daily Times it was "like something out of a horror movie" when the bacteria caused lesions and open sores all over his body. Doctors were quick to diagnose Funk with vibriosis, a disease caused by about a dozen of Vibrio bacteria species, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What is Vibrio vulnificus?

Vibrio vulnificus, which Funk contracted, is considered the most severe strain from the Vibrio family, to which the strain that causes cholera — Vibrio cholerae — also belongs. But unlike cholera, Vibrio vulnificus isn't spread from one person to another. Instead, it lives in warm, coastal waters, according to the CDC. Illness from infection can be treated with antibiotics, though sometimes, as in Funk's case, a limb may need to be amputated.

How common are infections from Vibrio vulnificus?

Vibrio strains cause roughly 80,000 illnesses in the U.S. every year, usually bringing with them diarrhea and vomiting. The CDC reports about 90 cases are Vibrio vulnificus — rare, sure, but much more dangerous. The symptoms are acute illness that leads to fast health decline, fever, low blood pressure, septic shock, as well as swelling, blisters and pain at the site of infection, according to the CDC. Symptom onset can occur just a couple days after exposure, or as far out as a week in rare cases.

Flesh-eating Bacteria Death in Maryland 2016: What to know about Vibrio vulnificus

An oyster cultivator pouring oyster seed on his boat. In 2013, oyster beds were closed in Massachusetts due to a Vibrio outbreak.
Savoia/AP

How climate change impacts Vibrio vulnificus

It's alarming enough that a man could die within four days of ocean water getting into an open cut. But what's especially scary is that Vibrio strains around the U.S. are on the rise — and it's most likely due to climate change.

According to a study published in August, the warming of our planet's sea surface temperature is "strongly associated with spread of Vibrios," inciting a rise in human diseases caused by Vibrio pathogens.

Here's the problem: When ocean temperatures rise, that creates warm, briny conditions — practically a spa for Vibrio. And considering how the planet is constantly breaking heat records, we're going to continue to see sea temperatures rise — and, potentially, usher in even more cases like Funk's.

Learn more about Vibrio vulnificus:

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Vibrio vulnificus flesh eating bacteria
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Vibrio vulnificus flesh eating bacteria
Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called "halophilic" because they require salt. V. vulnificus can cause disease in those who eat contaminated seafood or have an open wound that is exposed to contaminated seawater. Among healthy people, ingestion of V. vulnificus can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In immunocompromised persons, particularly those with chronic liver disease, V. vulnificus can infect the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions. V. vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal about 50% of the time. (Photo by CDC/ Colorized by James Gathany)
Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called "halophilic" because they require salt. V. vulnificus can cause disease in those who eat contaminated seafood or have an open wound that is exposed to contaminated seawater. Among healthy people, ingestion of V. vulnificus can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In immunocompromised persons, particularly those with chronic liver disease, V. vulnificus can infect the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions. V. vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal about 50% of the time. (Photo by CDC/ Janice Haney Carr)
Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called "halophilic" because they require salt. V. vulnificus can cause disease in those who eat contaminated seafood or have an open wound that is exposed to contaminated seawater. Among healthy people, ingestion of V. vulnificus can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In immunocompromised persons, particularly those with chronic liver disease, V. vulnificus can infect the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions. V. vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal about 50% of the time. (Photo by CDC/Janice Carr)
Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called "halophilic" because they require salt. V. vulnificus can cause disease in those who eat contaminated seafood or have an open wound that is exposed to contaminated seawater. Among healthy people, ingestion of V. vulnificus can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In immunocompromised persons, particularly those with chronic liver disease, V. vulnificus can infect the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions. V. vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal about 50% of the time. (Photo by CDC/Janice Carr)
Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called "halophilic" because they require salt. V. vulnificus can cause disease in those who eat contaminated seafood or have an open wound that is exposed to contaminated seawater. Among healthy people, ingestion of V. vulnificus can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In immunocompromised persons, particularly those with chronic liver disease, V. vulnificus can infect the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions. V. vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal about 50% of the time. (Photo by CDC/Janice Carr)
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