Experts warn 'flesh-eating' bacteria may be spreading to seafood, beaches due to climate change

Unusually warm waters may be enabling the spread of a "flesh-eating" bacteria to regions previously non-endemic to the microorganism, according to a report published this week in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study, conducted by a team of infectious disease specialists at Cooper University Health Care in New Jersey, linked rising temperatures in Delaware Bay to five recent cases of patients infected with vibrio vulnificus, one of whom died.

Most cases of V. vulnificus in the U.S. were, in the past, recorded in the southeastern part of the country.

The bacteria, typically found in brackish waters — the product of salt and fresh water mixed together, as in estuaries — with surface temperatures above 13 °C, causes necrotizing fasciitis, which is often referred to as a "flesh-eating" disease as it quickly kills the body's soft tissue.

V. vulnificus infections occur when the bacteria enters the body through either a break in the skin or consumption of raw or undercooked seafood, according to the study. Both routes can lead to bloodstream infections, which has a high mortality rate, especially in patients with immunosuppression or cirrhosis.

Dr. Katherine Doktor, an infectious disease specialist at Cooper University Health Care, told NBC News she wants doctors to be aware of the bacteria's spread to facilitate more rapid diagnosis, which is key in treating patients infected with V. vulnificus.

“As a result of our experience, we believe clinicians should be aware of the possibility that V. vulnificus infections are occurring more frequently outside traditional geographic areas," she told the outlet. 

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