Global warming may increase risk of deadly water pathogens

Flesh-eating bacteria, brain amobeas thrive in warmer water

Climate change is expanding the geographic range of harmful pathogens northward in fresh and salt water.
Climate change is expanding the geographic range of harmful pathogens northward in fresh and salt water.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Life-threatening microorganisms that cause disease are expected to become more abundant and spread to new areas as water temperatures rise, according to scientists.

Diseases caused by bacteria and viruses in the water have made local headlines. Brain-eating amoebas and flesh-eating bacteria will likely increase as the planet warms, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research.

One pathogen that thrives in warmer water is called Naegleria fowleri. The microscopic amoeba organism enters the nose resulting in brain swelling and quick death. Symptoms typically show up too late to save an individual, as was the case after a 13-year-old boy from Palatka died from an amoeba.

The CDC says although the disease is uncommon, it’s usually fatal with just four of 145 individuals having survived infection between 1962 to 2018.

Once an amoeba enters the body it causes inflammation of the brain and its surrounding protective membranes. (CDC, public domain image. https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/naegleria/naegleria-fowleri-images.html#photos)

Another illness, Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria that eats away the skin. It’s the leading cause of death associated with the consumption of seafood like oysters, but it can also be contracted by swimming in salt or brackish water.

It thrives during hurricane season as water heats up. The flesh-eating Vibrio bacteria enter open wounds, causing an infection that rapidly eats away at the body’s soft tissue.

Vibrio is the “canary in the coal mine,” as even a slight rise in temperatures can significantly boost populations.

The CDC estimated that the average annual incidence of all Vibrio infections increased by 54% during 2006–2017.

Climatologists have identified upward trends in global temperatures and, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, average temperatures in Florida could increase by 3˚ to 4˚ F during the next century.

Where are the most likely states to find the deadly organisms? Florida, California and Texas are already hot spots and areas farther north could encounter more cases as temperatures continue to rise.

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Increasing cases of Vibrio infections have increased elsewhere. Galicia, in northwestern Spain, is an example how warming water along with invasive Vibrio strains led it to increase infections for over a decade.


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