Hurricane Ian increases threat of flesh-eating bacteria

In September 2022, Hurricane Ian hit Cuba, Florida, and the Carolinas. It was the third costliest weather disaster on record, causing flooding and devastating winds. But that’s not all it does.A new study is published in the journal Mbio It has been revealed that hurricanes cause Vibrio to multiply, which could pose a significant risk to human health.

hurricane ian
The environmental conditions following Hurricane Ian created the perfect storm for Vibrio to grow. (Source: Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite Program)

Vibrio bacteria occur naturally in the ocean and have symbiotic relationships with a variety of marine organisms, including oysters and crustaceans. However, when the bacteria come into contact with humans, they can cause illnesses ranging from gastroenteritis to fatal flesh-eating infections. Eating raw or undercooked seafood or exposing open wounds to seawater increases the risk of infection. Warm saltwater conditions, such as those following hurricanes or floods, can increase the chance of exposure to Vibrio.

“We were very surprised to be able to detect the presence of these pathogens without any difficulty,” said the study’s senior author Rita Colwell, a distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland’s Advanced Computing Institute who has been conducting the research Vibrio. the past 50 years.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned of the presence of flesh-eating bacteria in post-hurricane floodwaters, this study shows the bacteria can multiply even after floodwaters recede.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, the University of Florida and microbiome company EzBiome, combined genome sequencing, satellite data and environmental information to determine the presence of pathogenic Vibrio species. Researchers collected and analyzed water and oyster samples collected in October 2022. Lee County, which has the highest number of cases in the state, reported 38 vibriosis-related infections and 11 deaths, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Of particular concern to these findings are the detections of two specific Vibrio species, Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus. Vibrio parahaemolyticus Can lead to gastroenteritis and wound infection. Vibrio vulnificus More threatening, it causes the flesh-eating infection necrotizing fasciitis, which is fatal in about one in five cases.

Vibrio threat

The environmental conditions following Hurricane Ian created the perfect storm for Vibrio to grow. Increased rainfall, changes in sea surface temperatures, and changes in chlorophyll concentrations in the ocean, which indicate the presence of phytoplankton and zooplankton, all contribute to conditions conducive to Vibrio proliferation. In particular, plankton blooms are associated with high abundance of Vibrio species.

The threat of vibriosis is not limited to warm regions. In August 2023, three people died from Vibrio vulnificus infections in New York and Connecticut. Researchers predicted this rise based on climate trends in the northeastern United States. As ocean temperatures rise, areas such as the Chesapeake Bay may also be affected.

These findings highlight the complex relationship between climate change and Vibrio proliferation. As global warming causes ocean temperatures to rise, we can expect storms like Hurricane Ian to become more frequent and intense. This in turn creates conditions for Vibrio to multiply, making coastal communities more susceptible to future Vibrio infections.

“These vibrios typically grow well between 15 and 40 degrees Celsius (59-104 degrees Fahrenheit), so as temperatures increase, their generation time shortens and they divide faster and faster,” Colwell said. “Warming seawater – which mixes with freshwater and creates optimal salinity – really promotes the growth of Vibrio, so it’s a very serious problem.”

The importance of this research goes beyond direct health implications. Using genetic analysis, environmental data and remote sensing, this study demonstrates the potential for proactive detection and characterization of Vibrio pathogens, which could be a game-changer for public health management. It also highlights the need for further research to quantify the prevalence of Vibrio in different locations, seasons and environmental conditions.

“On the positive side, knowing that these infections are associated with increased variability in climate change, maybe now is the time to develop mechanisms to understand and mitigate it,” Colwell said. “Climate change and flooding are clearly linked to infectious diseases , we need to take it seriously.”

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