Remember that patch of sargassum several thousand miles across heading straight for the Florida shores? It has an official name, the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, and in recent weeks it has been steadily making landfall on Florida beaches. And guess what else? The massive load of microalgae is not just filled with some mild irritants as initially predicted. No, that sticky ball of sea lettuce is also full of a strain of flesh-eating bacteria.
And no, I’m not speaking hyperbole. Vibrio vulnificus is the strain of bacteria, and it attaches itself to plastic particles in the ocean that are being trapped in the mass of seaweed.
“Our lab work showed that these Vibrio are extremely aggressive and can seek out and attach themselves to plastic in a matter of minutes,” Dr. Tracy Mincer, an assistant professor of biology at FAU’s Harbor Branch Institute of Oceanographic, told People this week. Mincer is also the lead author of the paper identifying the bacteria in sargassum.
“Another interesting thing that we discovered is a set of genes called ‘zot’ genes, which cause leaky gut syndrome. For example, if a fish eats a piece of plastic and becomes infected with this Vibrio, resulting in leaky gut and diarrhoea, it will release waste nutrients like nitrogen and phosphate that could stimulate the growth of sargassum and other surrounding organisms.”
To break that down for others like me, who are byproducts of Florida’s disastrously underfunded public school system: the fish are eating plastic infected with flesh-eating bacteria, violently defecating, and the nutrients in the poop are fertilizing the kelp mass, contributing to the growth. of even further seaweed. The bacterium has pathogenic potential; can cause disease.
While there have been flesh-eating bacteria in the ocean for a while (always) and this isn’t the first time kelp has washed ashore with flesh-eating bacteria, we’re still in relatively new territory with this sargassum bloom. The problem is that the bacteria is becoming more aggressive and has the potential to pose a significant risk to humans.
“This is not a new bacterium, but it is a new aggressive ability for this bacterium to stick to plastic and be in our sargassum,” Dr. Tim Laird, chief medical officer at Health First Medical Group, told Fox 35. the infection can be aggressive, and that’s why we call it the so-called flesh-eating bacteria.”
According to the CDC, most humans are exposed to Vibrio by eating raw or undercooked meat. But open wounds that come into contact with the bacteria can also cause a flesh-eating infection caused by necrotizing fasciitis. That infection can be severe enough to cause amputation or death. The CDC reports that one in five people who contract the infection die. The CDC says that signs of the infection include:
- Watery diarrhea, often accompanied by stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever.
- For bloodstream infections: fever, chills, dangerously low blood pressure, and blistering skin lesions
- For wound infection, which can spread to the rest of the body: fever, redness, pain, swelling, warmth, discoloration, and discharge (loss of fluids).
To reduce the risk of contracting the infection, the CDC recommends avoiding going into salt water or brackish water if you have open wounds on your skin, including from recent surgery, piercing, or tattooing. This even includes simply dunking your ankles in the water. You can read the full notice about infection and risks on the CDC website.
“Flesh-eating bacteria. I don’t know what it is, but I’m afraid of it, so I’m not going to risk it,” a Florida woman named María Sánchez who was walking near the beach told Fox. 35. That’s a pretty smart approach for anyone planning to hit the beach where sargassum is washing up on shore. More information on how sargassum will affect Florida beaches can be found from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt is expected to make landfall with greatest intensity in June and July.