Health Risk from Vibrios

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Improving assessment of public health risk associated with climate induced changes in pathogenic Vibrio parahaemolyticus abundance

Cheryl Whistler, Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences, UNH (603-862-2359); and Kevin Culligan, Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences, UNH (603-862-2430)

Vibrio parahaemolyticus is an environmentally transmitted emergent pathogen that can cause severe gastroenteritis when consumed in uncooked or improperly handled seafood. Vibrio diseases have the notoriety of exhibiting the single greatest increase (116%) in rates of infection from those observed in the mid 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although climate change is only one variable that may have led the general increased incidence throughout the U.S. and most recently in the Northeast, there is a wealth of data suggesting changes in environmental conditions that increase water temperatures and alter salinity promotes disease epidemics and ecological invasion and spread of pathogenic bacteria. Even as New Hampshire has escaped the ongoing outbreak of V. parahaemolyticus, strains with virulence traits in the Great Bay Estuary of N.H. have been detected with increasing frequency, and it is likely that the N.H. shellfish industry will encounter some disease exposures from local product. When outbreaks do occur, the response can be reactionary, and even temporary closures could stifle the growing N.H. oyster farming industry.

Through previous work funded in part by N.H. Sea Grant, Whistler and her colleagues determined the identity of strain types that caused most infections linked to Northeast harvest areas that are also present in the environment from shellfish growing areas in N.H. and the region. In this project, the researchers will combine strain-targeted detection with existing monitoring assays to evaluate the abundance of these pathogens in local harvest areas, and compare these dynamics to other growing areas in the region. They will address several untested assumptions about the nature of virulent strains and provide insight into the attributes that promote strain dominance in harvest areas. This study will allow N.H. to prepare for and minimize the impacts of climate change on public health and protect a sensitive growth industry.