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Flesh-eating bacteria may be spreading to East Coast beach waters, report finds

Researchers in New Jersey say flesh-eating bacteria could be spreading to waters around Delaware. Historically, infections have been rare there.
/ Source: TODAY

A new report has found that flesh-eating bacteria could be spreading to new places due to rising ocean temperatures from climate change.

The report published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine by six authors from Cooper University Hospital in New Jersey determined that the bacterium that causes the condition, Vibrio vulnificus, has been found in an area where it had previously been rarely seen.

Vibrio Vulnificus Bacteria
A new report says that flesh-eating bacteria known as Vibrio vulnificus has been seen in a part of Delaware and New Jersey where it was previously rare. Smith Collection/Getty Images

Five cases of flesh-eating bacteria, which require ocean water above 55 degrees Fahrenheit to live, were connected to activity in the Delaware Bay between 2017 and 2018, compared to one case of infection from 2008-16, according to Cooper University Hospital.

One of the patients died, while others suffered serious injuries. One 60-year-old man had all four limbs amputated after eating a dozen crabs he caught in the Delaware Bay.

Flesh-eating bacteria is usually found in the warmer waters of the Southeast and the Gulf of Mexico.

Every one of the patients had either eaten seafood from the Delaware Bay or gone crabbing in the area, which sits between Delaware and New Jersey, the report found.

"We believe that clinicians should be aware of the possibility that V. vulnificus infections are occurring more frequently outside traditional geographic areas," the authors wrote in the report.

Another common factor among the patients who contracted necrotizing fasciitis infections is that they had other conditions that affected their immune systems. Three of them had hepatitis B or C, and another one had diabetes.

People with compromised immune systems, particularly chronic liver disease, are more likely to contract the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Most people contract it by eating raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters, or through an open wound exposed to salt water or brackish water, the CDC states. The agency also notes that 80% of the infections occur between May and October, when the water is warmer.