Flesh-eating bacteria has killed eight people in the U.S., prompting warnings about swimming in the ocean and eating shellfish

Five of the Florida deaths occurred in the southeastern state’s Tampa Bay area.

In all, 26 Vibrio vulnificus infections have been reported in the state since January. Last year, Florida reported 74 cases and 17 deaths.

The high death toll in 2022 after Hurricane Ian dumped sewage into the ocean is attributed to increased bacteria levels.

According to one estimate, the bacteria causes 800,000 illnesses and about 100 deaths in the United States each year, with most infections occurring in the summer as the weather warms.

The rise of epidemics

A spike in infections in recent decades, with rates increasing eightfold in the US between 1998 and 2018, has been linked by experts to climate change.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Nature Portfolio found that as the coastal waters where the bacteria live warm, bacteria and infections are spreading northward up the East Coast at a rate of about 30 miles per year.

The disease causes gastrointestinal symptoms including fever, chills and vomiting when contracted by eating undercooked shellfish.

The bacteria has been linked to necrotizing fasciitis, a fatal fast-spreading bacterial infection that kills one in five people. Treatment may include amputation. Those most at risk are those with compromised immune systems.

William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, urged people to take basic precautions to reduce the risk of infection. “If you’re immunocompromised and have a fresh wound that won’t heal, stay out of the water. Instead, it is time to rest in the sun,” he said.

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