Deadly Vibrio virus gets worse as waters warm

As Delaware coastal waters warm, risk of deadly bacteria rises
Maddy Lauria, Delaware News Journal Published 11:05 a.m. ET Aug. 2, 2018 | Updated 9:17 a.m. ET July 3, 2019

Scientists and health officials worry climate change could lead to more infections caused by Vibrio bacteria found in waterways like the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. 8/1/18 Damian Giletto/The News Journal

Michael Funk survived the Vietnam War and overcame his battle with throat cancer, but it only took a few days for microscopic bacteria from Assawoman Bay to claim his life.

Funk had pulled his crab pots and boat out of the water in Ocean City, Maryland, in mid-September 2016, as he had done hundreds of times before. But this time the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria flourishing in the warm water got into a cut on his leg.

Often inaccurately called “flesh-eating bacteria,” Vibrio vulnificus is always present in salty water along the coast, but the number of cases rise with the warm weather of June through October. That paints a target on the backs of summer crabbers, fishermen and people just wading into bays that feel more like bathtubs.

Vibrio bacteria are like the sharks of the aquatic microbial world: They are always there, but people tend to forget they exist until someone loses a limb. Or worse.

And as global warming raises worldwide temperatures, the rate of infections could rise, researchers say.

It already may be on the rise in Delaware. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began tracking Vibrio-related illnesses and deaths in the Gulf Coast states in 1989, but it took other coastal states like Delaware another decade or longer to join them.

According to the CDC, Delaware had no reported cases until 2003, when it had one illness. In 2017, a dozen people became ill with Vibrio-related infections, state data show.

“It tends to be much more abundant at the end of the summer, when it’s warm and people are swimming and exposed to salt water and fresh water,” said Dr. Rita Colwell, a Vibrio expert from John Hopkins University. “You can’t eradicate it.”

Already this year, a crabber in New Jersey was told he might lose all his limbs, but now faces the likely loss of some toes and fingers. A fisherman in Texas waded in the water there before dying from the infection. One person died in Florida and another in Virginia after slurping down raw oysters infected with the bacteria.

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