Oyster Update

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Doctors are hoping some community education on the dangers of raw shellfish will help keep people safe. This comes after one Panhandle man dies and a second is still clinging to life after eating raw oysters.

Oysters are a Panhandle favorite, but a pair of recent blood poisonings has at least two local families thinking twice about eating them raw.

Brenda Vincent rushed her brother to the hospital on Wednesday just days after he ate raw oysters. James Palmer had liver problems in the past, but Vincent says no one ever told them he couldn't eat oysters.

She says, "He had some on Thursday and Friday and then had about six more on Saturday."

Palmer is still touch and go after losing one leg to the blood poisoning known as Vibrio Vulnificus. That's the technical name for the bacteria present in warm salt water and some oyster beds. Doctors say once the bacteria is in your blood it spreads quickly.

Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Ikram Haq says, "Its acute onset starts in the lower extremities."

Vincent says that's exactly what happened to her brother.

"It starts as a rash and then it goes to a blister then it gets real red and after that it turns black and it moves up your leg so fast."

Dr. Haq says the rash can turn into severe blisters in less tan 24 hours. At that point doctors usually have to amputate. Dr. Haq says those with liver disease and immune disorders are more susceptible to the bacteria and should never eat raw oysters, and he says the bacteria can even make healthy people feel sick to their stomachs.

Both men ate Apalachicola oysters a few days before being rushed to the hospital. The Franklin County Health Department is looking into the matter.

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What Is Vibrio Vulnificus?

Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called "halophilic" because they require salt.

What Type of Illness Does V. Vulnificus Cause?

  • V. vulnificus can cause disease in those who eat contaminated seafood or have an open wound that is exposed to seawater.
  • Among healthy people, ingestion of V. vulnificus can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
  • n immunocompromised persons, particularly those with chronic liver disease, V. vulnificus can infect the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions.
  • V. vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal about 50% of the time.
  • V. vulnificus can also cause an infection of the skin when open wounds are exposed to warm seawater; these infections may lead to skin breakdown and ulceration.
  • Persons who are immunocompromised are at higher risk for invasion of the organism into the bloodstream and potentially fatal complications.

How Common Is V. Vulnificus Infection?

  • V. vulnificus is a rare cause of disease, but it is also underreported. Between 1988 and 1995, CDC received reports of over 300 V. vulnificus infections from the Gulf Coast states, where the majority of cases occur.
  • There is no national surveillance system for V. vulnificus, but CDC collaborates with the states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi to monitor the number of cases of V. vulnificus infection in the Gulf Coast region.

How Do Persons Get Infected/Treated?

  • Persons who are immunocompromised, especially those with chronic liver disease, are at risk for V. vulnificus when they eat raw seafood, particularly oysters.
  • A recent study showed that people with these pre-existing medical conditions were 80 times more likely to develop V. vulnificus bloodstream infections than were healthy people.
  • The bacterium is frequently isolated from oysters and other shellfish in warm coastal waters during the summer months. Since it is naturally found in warm marine waters, people with open wounds can be exposed to V. vulnificus through direct contact with seawater.
  • There is no evidence for person-to-person transmission of V. vulnificus.
  • V. vulnificus infection is treated with antibiotics. Doxycycline or a third-generation cephalosporin (e.g., ceftazidime) is appropriate.
  • V. vulnificus infection is an acute illness, and those who recover should not expect any long-term consequences.

Tips for Preventing V. Vulnificus

1. Do not eat raw oysters or other raw shellfish.
2. Cook shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels) thoroughly:
3. For shellfish in the shell, either a) boil until the shells open and continue boiling for 5 more minutes, or b) steam until the shells open and then continue cooking for 9 more minutes. Do not eat those shellfish that do not open during cooking. Boil shucked oysters at least 3 minutes, or fry them in oil at least 10 minutes at 375°F.
4. Avoid cross-contamination of cooked seafood and other foods with raw seafood and juices from raw seafood.
5. Eat shellfish promptly after cooking and refrigerate leftovers.
6. Avoid exposure of open wounds or broken skin to warm salt or brackish water, or to raw shellfish harvested from such waters.
7. Wear protective clothing (e.g., gloves) when handling raw shellfish.

Source: http://www.cds.gov (Centers for Disease Control Web site) contributed to this report.