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Flesh-eating bacteria cases are on the rise, and climate change may be to blame

Flesh-eating bacteria cases are on the rise, and climate change may be to blame
[Photo: Patrick Hendry/Unsplash]

The 1995 film Waterworld offers a glimpse of a future Earth that is addled by climate change, a place where the polar ice caps have melted and the only hope for a ragtag group of survivors is . . . Kevin Costner. That’s a pretty dire portrait of global warming’s effects, but if the filmmakers wanted to be more dire—and more realistic—perhaps they should have included flesh-eating bacteria.

According to a letter published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, climate change may be behind an increase in infections from the flesh-eating Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, which is reportedly flourishing thanks to rising water temperatures and climate change.

Normally, Vibrio bacteria infections are rare. While Vibrio is endemic along the southeastern U.S. coast, before 2017, the letter’s authors had only seen one case at the hospital where they work in the previous eight years, according to USA Today, which first reported the alarming letter. Between 2017 and 2018, there were five cases in Southern New Jersey alone. Researchers speculated the recent increase in cases could be related to rising water temperatures and climate change that keep the water in the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays warm and brackish, just the way the Vibrio bacteria likes it.

It’s not just flesh-eating bacteria that will become more common due to climate change. According to researchers at Stanford, as the globe warms, mosquitoes will become more common and more wide-ranging, meaning diseases like malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya, and West Nile virus will become more common, too. The World Health Organization agrees, noting that “changes in infectious disease transmission patterns are a likely major consequence of climate change,” so get ready for more Lyme disease, more hantavirus, more cholera, and still no universal health insurance to help you pay for treatment. Maybe Kevin Costner will save us?

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