Rising ocean temperatures may be making us ill and it’s only getting worse.
Warmth-loving marine bacteria are growing in abundance and posing an increased risk to human health as waters heat up, according to a study published this week.
Vibrio bacteria causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the U.S. every year. Typically found in warm and salty coastal waters or river estuaries, the bacteria are usually picked up through the consumption of raw or undercooked seafood, like oysters, or cuts in the skin when swimming.
There’s been an unprecedented number of Vibrio cases in the U.S. and northern Europe in recent years, said the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The primary reason for this spike is climate change-fueled temperature increases in parts of the Atlantic Ocean, the researchers concluded.
“We were able to demonstrate that there was an increase in the numbers of Vibrios, probably a two or threefold increase, correlated with the increase in climate temperature, and then correlated with outbreaks of Vibrio infections that have been recorded in the medical records,” study co-author Rita Colwell, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland, told The Washington Post.
Colwell, together with an international team of researchers, analyzed plankton samples collected from nine areas in the North Atlantic region from 1958 to 2011. They measured the presence of Vibrio bacteria in the samples and found that, controlling for other variables, its populations grew significantly as waters warmed. Average global sea surface temperatures have risen about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s. Climate change has played a significant factor in this rise.
The study corroborates earlier research that linked Vibrio outbreaks worldwide to rising ocean temperatures.
A joint report from 17 European marine institutes said in 2011 that the proliferation of Vibrio bacteria could cost countries in Europe “millions of euros” in health care in the coming years.
“Climatic conditions are playing an increasingly important role in the transmission of [Vibrio] diseases,” the paper said.
There are about 110 different types of Vibrio bacteria living in our oceans, according to Carbon Brief. The most well-known of them is cholera, a potentially deadly diarrheal disease.
Other strains include Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which are more common in the United States (vulnificus was blamed for a spate of deaths in Florida last year) and were the focus of the recent study.
Researchers said active steps need to be taken to prevent further Vibrio outbreaks worldwide.
Vibrio illnesses need to be anticipated and rapidly diagnosed, Colwell told the Scientific American. Increased awareness is also key.
“I think the public would not expect that the oceans would have that direct impact on human health,” said Colwell, a former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of tips to prevent vibriosis, or illnesses that Vibrio bacteria causes. These include avoiding raw and undercooked shellfish, avoiding brackish water if you have a wound and wearing protective gloves when handling raw seafood.