Climate Change And Warming Oceans Are Making Us Sick, Literally

The temperature on earth is rising, and the warming oceans are making us sick, literally. And the problem is only getting worse.

According to a new study, marine bacteria is growing in increased abundance because it flourishes in a warm environment. This increased level of bacteria poses an increased risk to human health, and as ocean waters continue to warm, these risks increase as well, the Huffington Post reports.

Vibrio bacteria, for example, already causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the U.S. annually. The bacteria is typically found in warm, salty ocean waters or in river estuaries. The bacteria is usually contracted by the consumption of raw or undercooked seafood, or it is absorbed through cuts in the skin while swimming.

Climate change leads to warming oceans. Climate change has been a significant factor in this rise in temperature, say scientists. [Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]In recent years, however, there has been an unprecedented number of Vibrio cases presented, reports the academic journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers conclude that the cause for this spike in “climate change-fueled temperature increases in parts of the Atlantic Ocean.”

“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.”

There are around 110 different types of Vibrio bacteria living in the ocean. The most well-known Vibrio bacteria is cholera, a diarrheal disease that is potentially fatal. In addition to cholera, other strains include both Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus. Both of those bacterial strains are common in the United States. Vibrio vulnificus is also deadly and was recently pinpointed as the cause for a number of deaths in Florida last year. It was also the focus of the newest study.

Researchers said active steps need to be taken to prevent further Vibrio outbreaks worldwide. As man-made climate change continues to increase the temperature of ocean waters, Vibrio bacteria and other warmth-loving bacteria will continue to proliferate in the warmer waters, thus increasing the likelihood of sickness and death.

Plankton samples were collected and analyzed by an international team of researchers. Samples were taken from nine separate areas in the North Atlantic region from 1958 to 2011. The presence of Vibrio bacteria was measured in each of the samples. Researchers found that the population of Vibrio bacteria present in the ocean water samples collected grew significantly as the ocean waters warmed. Average global sea surface temperatures have risen about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s, and scientists concur that climate change has played a significant role in this rise in temperature.

Warming ocean water leads to increased illness. Samples spanning more than 50 years have been analyzed. [Photo by UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images]“Climatic conditions are playing an increasingly important role in the transmission of [Vibrio] diseases,” the research stated.

This newest study corroborates other research that also links recent worldwide Vibrio outbreaks to the rising temperature of ocean waters. In addition, a joint report from 17 different European marine institutes in 2011 stated the seriousness of a proliferation of Vibrio bacteria outbreaks in health, lives, and cost, while saying that such an outbreak could cost millions in health care over the coming years.

Vibrio illnesses need to be “anticipated and rapidly diagnosed,” co-author Rita Colwell, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland, stated. She emphasized that increased awareness of Vibrio illnesses is also key.

“I think the public would not expect that the oceans would have that direct impact on human health,” said Colwell, who is also a former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a list of tips to prevent vibriosis, which is the illness that the various types Vibrio bacteria could cause. These tips include avoiding raw and undercooked shellfish, avoiding brackish water if a wound is present, and wearing protective gloves when handling raw seafood.

[Image via Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock]