Rising temperatures and sea levels have led to a proliferation of a deadly, flesh-eating bacteria in the Carolina waterways, a report said Tuesday.
Reports of illness from toxic forms of the bacteria vibrio, often found in rivers, creeks and sounds, has tripled in South Carolina and doubled in North Carolina since 2007, The State reported.
“You can get sick within just hours of exposure. If you’re badly infected and particularly if you don’t seek medical care quickly enough, you can certainly be dead in a day or two,” said John Gnann, an infectious disease doctor at the Medical University of South Carolina who’s spent years treating patients infected with the toxic form of vibrio, according to the outlet.
“It is a very rapidly moving infection.”
The State’s report is part of a series released Tuesday that analyzes the impact climate change has on health in North and South Carolina and was done in partnership with other Carolina newspapers, Columbia Journalism School and the Center for Public Integrity.
There are about 70 to 200 different strains of vibrio but the most toxic, vibrio vulnificus, typically gets inside humans through open sores while swimming or fishing, the outlet said, citing a myriad of scientists.
While it can affect anyone, those with liver disease or poor health have much worse outcomes and are more likely to die from the infection.
Doctors are often forced to amputate limbs to stop the infection from spreading — and about half of people infected who end up septic from vibrio vulnificus don’t survive, the outlet reported, citing the American Academy of Family Physicians.
The report details deaths caused by the bacteria, including a man who became sick in a matter of hours after he was nicked by a crab and another man who was scraped while cleaning up tree branches following Hurricane Florence in 2018.
It’s difficult to figure out where exactly the bacteria is living because of poor data but the Virginia Department of Health does show a link between popular tourist destinations in the Carolinas and vibrio infections.
Residents from The Old Dominion who vacationed in North Carolina’s Nags Head and South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach have collectively contracted 16 cases of vibrio since 2007, the outlet reported.
The majority came from Nags Head but it’s still unclear where the vacationers specifically came into contact with the bacteria, the outlet said.
Vibrio has long been a problem in the Gulf of Mexico but it’s becoming a bigger issue along the Atlantic coastline due to “surging oceans, more frequent storms, saltier rivers and warmer seas,” according to Geoff Scott, a scientist from the University of South Carolina who’s leading a research center at the school.
Scott’s center is studying the role a changing climate has on health for people living along southern coastlines and has found climate-induced changes to the waterways are fueling vibrio’s growth.
“It has already become a bigger problem in the last 10 or 12 years,’’ Scott told the outlet.
“This is going to have a substantial increase in health care concerns and health care costs, and compromise the safety of our waters.”