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Global warming increases risk of fatal bacterial infections

A new study led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) has found that global warming may cause a rise in the number and spread of Vibrio vulnificus, a potentially deadly type of bacterium that grows in warm shallow coastal waters and can infect cuts or insect bites during contact with seawater. According to the researchers, the number of V. vulnificus infections along the East Coast of U.S. – a global hotspot for such infections – has increased from 10 to 80 per year over the last three decades, with cases occurring further north each year.

While in the late 1980s, cases were found only in the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic coast below Georgia, today they can be found as far north as Philadelphia, and, by 2041-2060, they might even spread to encompass major population centers around New York, with cases doubling each year. Under medium-to-high emissions scenarios, by 2081-2100 infections may reach every Eastern U.S. state.

Although the number of cases is not very high at the moment, individuals infected with such bacteria have a one-in-five chance of dying and, even if they survive, this pathogen often damages their flesh and can lead to limb amputations or other similar outcomes. Moreover, this frequently called “flesh eating illness” is one of the most expensive diseases caused by a marine pathogen to treat in the US.

“The projected expansion of infections highlights the need for increased individual and public health awareness in the areas affected. This is crucial as prompt action when symptoms occur is necessary to prevent major health consequences,” said study lead author Elizabeth Archer, a postgraduate researcher in Environmental Sciences at UEA.

“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.”

However, the scientists estimate that, if emissions are kept low, cases may extend northwards only as far as Connecticut. Besides measures to mitigate climate warming, individuals and health authorities should be warned in real time about the risk of such infections in specific areas, while greater awareness programs for at risk groups – such as the elderly and people with comorbidities – should be developed.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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