The Oyster Effect

By: Courtney Hayes
By: Courtney Hayes

Ever since 39-year-old Dennis Sharron lost his life to a rare blood infection called Vibrio Vulnificus, raw oyster lovers have been opting for a more well-done version.

Sharron and a Panama City man who is still fighting the infection at a local hospital both ate raw oysters days before they fell ill.

The news spread fast at oyster bars around town.

"Business has dropped 75 percent on raw oysters. We still sell baked oysters, but not as many as we used to. We have baked, fried and steamed, but we've seen a big drop," says Mitch Holman, Owner of Captain's Table.

The Centers for Disease Control says those with a poor immune system or liver problems are much more likely to die from the blood infection. However, the CDC says contaminated oysters will only cause food poisoning to those in good health.

Restaurant owners say the Florida Department of Health would shut down all trade of the Apalachicola oysters if they thought they posed a widespread risk to consumers.

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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.


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