CDC health warning issued after 5 killed by 'flesh-eating' bacteria across East Coast

Vibrio vulnificus is a rod-shaped bacterium that can cause life-threatening infection (Image credit: BSIP/Contributor via Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a health alert warning people about the risks of flesh-eating bacteria across the U.S. East Coast after five people died following infection. 

One person in Connecticut, another in New York and three people in North Carolina, died between July and August this year as a result of infection with Vibrio vulnificus, a deadly species of bacteria that lives in coastal waters. 

In a statement issued on Friday (Sep. 1), the CDC urged healthcare professionals and members of the public to be on high alert. 

"People who are at increased risk for V. vulnificus infection should exercise caution when engaging in coastal water activities," the CDC wrote. "Prompt treatment is crucial to reduce mortality from severe V. vulnificus infection."

Related: 'Flesh-eating' bacteria kill 3 in New York and Connecticut

Vibrio bacteria normally live in salt or brackish coastal waters. People become infected after being exposed to the bacteria, either through an open wound that has been in contact with infected water or raw or undercooked shellfish, or most commonly, by directly eating the latter. There are about a dozen Vibrio species that can make people sick, and around 80,000 people are infected with Vibrio bacteria in the U.S. every year, according to the CDC. Symptoms include diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and fever. 

Infection by V. vulnificus can also be fatal, and around 1 in 5 people die following infection, sometimes within a couple of days of getting sick, the CDC noted. People who have underlying health conditions, such as liver disease, diabetes and conditions that weaken the immune system, are at a higher risk of infection.

"V. vulnificus wound infections have a short incubation period [the time between infection and when symptoms first show] and are characterized by necrotizing [tissue killing] skin and soft tissue infection," the CDC noted. In some cases, people may also develop bleeding blisters. If left untreated, infection can spread throughout the body and cause blood poisoning

V. vulnificus normally thrives in warmer waters, especially between May and October, the agency said, with infections in the U.S. predominantly reported on the Gulf Coast. However, increased coastal sea surface temperatures and widespread heatwaves this summer have coincided with the reported infections across the East Coast. Indeed, rising coastal water temperatures associated with climate change have been previously linked with increasing rates of Vibrio infections, with the northern geographic range of V. vulnificus infections having increased by 48 kilometers a year between 1988 and 2018. 

Extreme weather, including hurricanes, floods and storms, can also push coastal water inland and increase the risk of infection, as was seen with Hurricane Ian last year. 

The CDC recommends that people stay out of salt or brackish water if they have an open wound, and to leave the water immediately if they are cut while swimming. Wounds should be covered with a waterproof bandage and washed thoroughly with soap and clean, running water. The agency also advises that raw oysters and other shellfish are cooked before eating, and that people wash their hands with soap and water after handling raw shellfish. Anyone with an infected wound should seek immediate medical attention, it said. 

Emily Cooke
Staff Writer

Emily is a health news writer based in London, United Kingdom. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Durham University and a master's degree in clinical and therapeutic neuroscience from Oxford University. She has worked in science communication, medical writing and as a local news reporter while undertaking journalism training. In 2018, she was named one of MHP Communications' 30 journalists to watch under 30. (