In a steamy hot summer of freak storms and horrific wildfires, recent cases of infections from vicious, flesh-eating bacteria that can kill within 48 hours of exposure in warm, brackish water has only added to a sense of foreboding.
It’s not that our sounds and marshes are dirty or disease-ridden, says a veteran microbiologist; it’s that warm estuarine waters can be dangerous to people with vulnerable immune systems who have fresh wounds or who have eaten raw oysters.
“The last thing I want to do is scare people away from the beach, when it’s a very rare, rare situation,” James D. Oliver, professor emeritus at University of North Carolina Charlotte, Department of Biological Sciences, said in a recent interview. “But if you’re a susceptible person, you’re at risk.”
Although Vibrio vulnificus, a genus that’s one of the fastest growing bacteria known, has long been present in the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic coastal estuarine waters, infections from the pathogen have been becoming more prevalent in northern waters as the climate becomes increasingly warmer.
Of the 100 or so Vibrio bacteria, including one that causes cholera, vulnificus can be the most lethal.
State health officials reported that three people from North Carolina — including one case in Nags Head — died in July from Vibrio infections.
Three people in the New York City metropolitan area also have died since July 1 of Vibrio infections, and another person was hospitalized and released, the New York governor’s office reported.
But Vibrio vulnificus, unlike the familiar water-borne contaminants from animal feces or septic spills, are naturally occurring in marine waters.
“They’re there all the time,” Oliver explained. “But when the water is cold, they go into a dormant stage and you won’t get infections in the winter. So all the infections are from like May until October.”
Typically, people who get infected are those who have liver diseases, including hepatitis, are older than age 60, or have suppressed immune system diseases such as diabetes, Oliver said. And for reasons scientists don’t completely understand, 85% to 90% of infection cases are in men over age 40.
Oliver, who began researching Vibrio vulnificus about 45 years ago, said the reason for the gender differences may be related to protective factors of estrogen in females, or because nearly all cases of liver cirrhosis are in males, he said. Unfortunately, he added, a large percentage of those with cirrhosis, which is not a young man’s disease, are unaware of it until it has progressed.
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