Climate Change May Be Spawning Flesh-Eating Bacteria in New Jersey

Put them together with "brain-eating" amoeba, and it's shaping up to be a summer from hell.
Vibrio Vulnificus.
Vibrio vulnificus. (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)

Climate change appears to have finally made the commute to New Jersey.

A case report published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested that, because of rising water temperatures, there has been a tangible uptick in cases of Vibrio vulnificus, a flesh-eating bacteria spread by eating or touching seafood. In this instance, the contaminated crustaceans came from the Delaware Bay in South Jersey.


The condition is far from unheard of farther south, where it has traditionally been spotted in places like Maryland, Virginia, and states close to the Gulf Coast. But it's such an anomaly up north that medical professionals in the region might be caught off guard, the authors warned.

"It is important for physicians—who may have never seen this infection before in their medical practice—to have some awareness," Katherine Doktor, a co-author of the report, an infectious disease expert, and an assistant professor at New Jersey’s Cooper Medical School at Rowan University, said in a statement released alongside her work.

According to Doktor, before 2017, doctors at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, had treated just one patient apparently afflicted with the malady over an eight-year period. But in the past two years alone, five patients have walked in the door with symptoms of Vibrio. Most had issues with their legs: One man, who worked at a seafood restaurant, showed up puking, his left leg coated in a rash. Another also had problems with his left leg (it was puffed up and covered in blisters), after he had been out crabbing in the bay. A third man was said to have consumed around 12 crabs he caught, and had a swollen right leg; he eventually underwent an amputation. (Of the five patients, one ultimately died.)

As terrifying as this all might sound, there was a key qualification to bear in mind. In Doktor's words: "In all the cases we've seen, the patients have had known risk factors (liver disease, diabetes, or other immune compromise) when a break in the skin was exposed to water and/or [when the patient] consumed uncooked shellfish harvested from the Delaware Bay." And it's safe to say five patients is not enough to definitively attribute these afflictions to water warmed by climate change.

"There are many different kinds of bacteria that can cause flesh-eating syndrome illness," said William Schaffner, a professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "We're talking about one of them here, and it is intriguing that in this New Jersey location there's suddenly been a splurge of these infections, and it is reasonable to wonder whether the changing climate has altered the ecology so that this bacteria, which usually likes warmer, brackish waters, like down around in Louisiana, has now found an ecological niche that allows it to survive more abundantly than it previously did in New Jersey waters. You're entitled to wonder."

It's an unsettling development, especially when taken in tandem with the specter of "brain-eating" amoeba, which experts have suggested may likewise become more common farther north as water temperatures rise. "I'm not surprised by how much this has taken off," Doktor said when reached via phone Tuesday after the study had begun to circulate. "But our intention was to alert clinicians that this infection may now become more prevalent around New Jersey, when in the past it really hasn't been."

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Alex Norcia on Twitter.