Eight people have been infected by vibrio vulnificus in Florida this year, and two people have died — one from eating raw seafood and another from “multiple exposures” to the bacteria. (Photo: Getty Images)
If you’ve eaten at a restaurant that serves raw seafood, you’ve probably noticed this warning on the menu, or something similar: “Eating raw or undercooked shellfish can put you at a higher risk of foodborne illness.”
Before you brush off the message, consider this: The state of Florida has issued a warning about vibrio vulnificus, an often deadly bacteria that can be transmitted by eating undercooked or raw shellfish such as oysters, clams, or crabs.
Eight people have been infected by the bacteria in Florida this year, and two have died — one from eating raw seafood and another from “multiple exposures” to the bacteria. (The bacteria killed at least seven people in Florida last year, but the state says that number is underreported.)
Vibrio vulnificus can also be contracted by wading in bacteria-infected water with an open wound, but ingesting raw seafood is by far the biggest culprit, infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, tells Yahoo Health.
Most people who contract this bacteria will experience vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, but it can also infect the bloodstream, causing fever, chills, decreased blood pressure, and blistering skin lesions.
This bacteria also has a high mortality rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vibrio vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal 50 percent of the time.
Before you panic, know this: Most people who died from vibrio vulnificus had liver disease or had compromised immune systems. However, anyone can become infected.
Vibrio vulnificus is most common in warm waters in Gulf states, Adalja says, but he points out that 100 percent of Chesapeake Bay oysters have vibrio vulnificus in them. “It’s not uncommon; just not everybody who comes into contact with it gets infected,” he says.
According to Adalja, some people may be genetically predisposed to infection, adding, “The more raw shellfish you eat, the more likely you are to get vibrio vulnificus.”
Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, tells Yahoo Health that you should be wary of eating raw oysters in general. “It’s considered to be a potential high risk, whether you’re immunocompromised or not,” he said.
However, he says, there is one way you can make sure your raw shellfish is safe: Look for foods that undergo high-pressure processing. This process inactivates harmful microbes that could be in your shellfish, including vibrio vulnificus, but doesn’t kill the oysters. “You still have a fresh flavor, but they’re pasteurized,” Doyle says, noting that more restaurants are buying these types of oysters.
If you experience symptoms of vibrio vulnificus infection after eating oysters or raw shellfish, call your doctor immediately. “This can quickly spread systemically,” says Adalja. “Getting antibiotics quickly is crucial.”