How Trump Could Make a Deadly Flesh-Eating Bacteria Spread, Again (Video)

Jan 28, 2017 by


Vibrio vulnificus is like something out of a horror movie.

By nominating fossil fuel-fanatics and climate deniers to his cabinet, signaling U.S. abandonment of the Paris climate accord, cutting NASA climate research, and planning to gut the EPA, President Trump has made it clear that federal action to fight climate change is a thing of the past—and that he’s willing to erode any gains that have been made.

What could that mean? For starters, the goal to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2° Celsius is now endangered, since the United States—the world’s second biggest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China—is responsible for more than 15 percent of the world’s emissions. Then there’s the cascade of impacts resulting from the increased surface temperature, including species extinctions, ocean acidification, sea level rise, changes in precipitation patterns that impact farmers, increase in global warming refugees, and more droughts, wildfires and heatwaves.

While these impacts are frightening indeed, one has emerged that is particularly scary: the rise of a deadly, flesh-eating bacteria.

Last fall, Michael Funk was cleaning crab traps outside his home in Ocean City, Maryland. As he waded into the Atlantic, a deadly bacteria entered his body through a small cut in his leg. Four days later, he was dead.

“It’s like something out of a horror movie,” said Marcia Funk, his wife of 46 years.

But it’s frighteningly real—and thanks to climate change, the occurrence of the menacing microbe, Vibrio vulnificus, is expected to rise.

Ars Technica’s health reporter Beth Mole, a microbiologist, writes:

Within hours, Funk fell ill and went to a nearby hospital where a surgeon removed infected, rotting skin from his leg. But with the flesh-eating bacteria circulating in his bloodstream, his condition quickly worsened. He was flown to a trauma hospital in Baltimore where surgeons amputated his leg. Still, the lesions spread and, on September 15, he died.

As Mole notes, Funk’s case, while extreme, wasn’t even the worst recent case. She cited a case in July 2015 of a 59-year-old man who became infected with V. vulnificus in the Gulf of Mexico. He went to a hospital with a painful lesion on his ankle that expanded before the doctors’ eyes. “Within hours, his whole body was covered in lesions,” Mole writes. “A little more than 48 hours later, he was dead.”

False color scanning electron micrograph of Vibrio vulnificus, a species of Gram-negative, motile, curved, rod-shaped, pathogenic bacteria of the genus Vibrio that lives in marine environments such as estuaries, brackish ponds, or coastal areas. (image: Wikipedia)

Climate change isn’t the only culprit in the expected rise in cases of deadly bacterial infections. Raw oysters also play a role. The editorial board of the Salisbury, Maryland Daily Times (the newspaper that reported on the Funk case) offered readers a simple warning: “Avoid brackish, stagnant water and don’t eat raw oysters.”

There has been a surge in demand for raw oysters, particularly those raised in farms. “Along the East Coast, wild oysters have been disappearing,” writes Bonny Wolf of WFSU, a public radio station serving Florida and Georgia, two Atlantic seaboard states that have the kind of warm saltwater the vibrio class of bacteria prefers. “But the number of farm-raised oysters is exploding.…raw oyster bars are all the rage.”

Certainly, the increased interest in raw oysters can’t be pegged to Donald Trump, but the president’s anti-climate policies will help to maintain the perfect breeding ground for certain deadly viruses and bacteria like V. vilnificus. The close relationship between climate and infections on an epidemic-scale has been well established, and history shows it. Jonathan Patz, an environmental health expert at Johns Hopkins University, explains:

For centuries humans have known that climatic conditions affect epidemic infections—since well before the basic notion of infectious agents was under- stood late in the nineteenth century. The Roman aristocracy took refuge in their hill resorts each summer to avoid malaria. South Asians learnt early that in high summer, strongly curried foods were less prone to induce diarrhoeal diseases. In the southern United States one of the most severe summertime outbreaks of yellow fever (viral disease transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito) occurred in 1878, during one of the strongest El Niño episodes on record. The economic and human cost was enormous, with an estimated death toll of around 20 000 people. In developed countries today it is well known that recurrent influenza epidemics occur in mid-winter.

More recently, scientists at the World Health Organization suggest that climate change aided the spread of the Zika virus.

“Zika is the kind of thing we’ve been ranting about for 20 years,” Daniel Brooks, a biologist at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told the Guardian. “We should’ve anticipated it. Whenever the planet has faced a major climate change event, man-made or not, species have moved around and their pathogens have come into contact with species with no resistance.”

With Trump and his fellow climate deniers in power, there will be little in terms of climate action to stop the rise of the deadly, flesh-eating Vibrio vulnificus. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. Carina Blackmore, a Florida epidemiologist, explains how in this video:

Reynard Loki is AlterNet’s environment and food editor.

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