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A man in Texas died over Labor Day weekend after dining out at a restaurant. The culprit has also taken the lives of multiple people all over the country this summer—raw oysters.
Whether you’re enjoying an oyster happy hour or indulging in an elaborate seafood tower, eating uncooked seafood comes with inherent health risks. But one strain of bacteria has taken center stage lately: Vibrio vulnificus.
What Is Vibrio Vulnificus?
Vibrio vulnificus grows in warm coastal waters and is closely related to the bacteria that causes cholera. The CDC estimates that there are around 150-200 Vibrio vulnificus infections in the United States annually. Twenty percent of those who are exposed to the bacteria die, often in just a matter of days. Some people call it a "flesh-eating bacteria" because a Vibrio infection can cause flesh around a wound to die.
Many people who contract a Vibrio infection get it by swimming in contaminated water with an open wound. But the primary source is consuming raw and undercooked seafood.
Symptoms range from abdominal cramps and fevers to vomiting, and even necrosis around open wounds. Severe cases are typically attributed to pre-existing health issues, as was the case with the death in Texas earlier this month.
Health officials consider Vibrio vulnificus infections to be relatively rare, but this summer presentes unique risks. The CDC release a health advisory in September blaming rising water temperatures and hurricanes for the bacteria’s proliferation along the coasts.
Vibrio vulnificus has been a mainstay in the Gulf Coast, where the warm waters are especially hospitable to bacterial growth. But as global temperatures continue to climb, the dangerous bacteria is migrating northward.
The CDC says that Vibrio infections have increased eightfold over the past 50 years. In fact, three people in the greater New York area died from the bacteria this summer. Vibrio vulnificus infections have also killed five people around Tampa, Florida.
How Can You Tell if Your Oysters Are Contaminated?
It's impossible to detect if an oyster is contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus by looking at it. An infected mollusk is indistinguishable from one that's safe to eat. If you’re still committed to enjoying raw oysters this summer, it might be better to source your oysters from further north. Oysters from Canada, specifically Prince Edward Island, live in much cooler water where the risk of Vibrio vulnificus infections is significantly lower.
Or if you want to be especially careful, you're better off just cooking your oysters. Fried and grilled oysters may not have the same appeal as an ice cold raw oyster on the half shell, but they're certainly safer.
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