While not everyone enjoys consuming this slippery delicacy, oysters are a high-end delicacy served in restaurants across the entire globe. It seems that people either love them or hate them, though we know surprisingly little about this tasty, slimy bivalve. We understand that chefs believe you are supposed to eat these mollusks raw, and for some reason this doesn’t result in thousands of cases of food poisoning. But is that the best idea? There are major risks.
Did you know that oysters can kill?
Deaths linked to oyster eating
A Sarasota, Florida ABC television station (WWSB) has reported that a 71-year-old gentlemen died after eating oysters at a local restaurant and contracting necrosis fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) as a result of his vibrio infection. The Florida Health Department informed the news station that the man ate the oyster at an unnamed restaurant on July 8th. Two days after this, he died.
In addition to these recent case, back in January, CBS News released an article detailing the events of another oyster related death in Dallas, Texas. According to this report, “Don’t eat raw oysters, period, ever…because you can for sure die.” This warning came about after a woman recently died due to similar flesh-eating bacteria contracted from eating oysters.
The woman and her friend had picked up a bag of raw oysters from their local seafood market one afternoon as a treat. They ate about two dozen of them raw before the woman became seriously ill. She had blisters on her legs and tongue, and her friend said it appeared to be an extremely bad allergic reaction. Doctors soon informed the woman that she had contracted vibrio, a potentially deadly infection. She continued to develop more wounds on her body from the flesh-eating bacteria, despite the doctors’ efforts to stabilize her. The woman’s health swiftly deteriorated, and she died 21 days later.
And these are only examples. There are over 100 deaths of vibrio infections per year in the United States. In some of the more severe cases, there were deaths and limb amputations due to the development of necrosis fasciitis.
What is the bacteria in oysters that kills?
It’s simple: Vibrio. The nasty bacteria, vibrio vulnificus, is found in warm brackish water (a mixture of fresh water and sea water, which is most commonly found where rivers meet ocean) and its victims usually end up suffering from a severely compromised immune system. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), vibrio vulnificus naturally resides in certain coastal waters and maintains higher concentration during the months of May through October–warmer months when the water remains at a higher temperature. The CDC has been quoted saying,
“Vibriosis causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses in the United States every year. People with vibriosis become infected by consuming raw or undercooked seafood or exposing a wound to seawater. Most infections occur from May through October when water temperatures are warmer.”
Vibrio vulnificus’ sister bacteria, Vibrio parahaemolyticus can be just as dangerous. Following Hurricane Katrina, 22 people were infected with Vibrio from contaminated waters, three of which were caused by V. parahaemolyticus, and two of these led to death.
What to look out for
The symptoms of infection of this dangerous bacterium include: watery diarrhea, which is usually paired with severe abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills. Vibriosis (the illness that results from vibrio bacteria) generally manifests itself in individuals who have consumed raw or undercooked shellfish farmed in the contaminated waters–though, oysters are the most common culprit.
That being said, consumption is not the only way to contract the illness. Cuts or open wounds exposed to brackish water where the bacteria can be found are also susceptible to vibriosis. The CDC estimates that up to 80,000 illnesses occur each year in response to vibrio, and 52,000 of those cases involve some sort of contaminated food item. While most people recover after a few days, there are many documented cases that resulted in death and amputation of limbs.
Severe cases of vibriosis are those that involve vibrio vulnificus, which tends to assault the bloodstream and cause catastrophic infections. These cases tend to result in blistering skin lesions which have been known to require limb amputations in order to help the patient survive. It’s an aggressive bacterium that attacks the body inwardly, destroying the kidneys and infesting the bloodstream, wrecking bodies from the inside out. Most people, however, develop treatable food poisoning symptoms and soon recover. It seems to be those with compromised systems that are most at risk–such as the woman mentioned above, who had gastric bypass that affected her digestion. The CDC says that between fifteen and thirty percent of these cases result in death.
If you swallow enough contaminated saltwater or eat shellfish that hasn’t been prepared properly, vibrio can cause an upset stomach and diarrhea. There’s another way for vibrio to enter the bloodstream. If you go swimming in salty or brackish water with an open wound, there’s a possibility that vibrio can slip past your body’s defenses and cause an ugly infection. The CDC recommends only eating thoroughly cooked shellfish and to avoid consuming any oysters that do not open during cooking.
Additionally, the health kits warn that oysters with Vibrio do not taste any different than those without. Therefore, both the CDC and FDA warn against eating raw oysters, noting that it is the only effective way to avoid contracting the illness.
The CDC states that people can become infected with vibrio after simply eating raw or undercooked shellfish (mainly oysters) or having open wounds exposed to brackish waters. While it can result in a terrible, festering, growing bacteria that assaults the bloodstream and immune system, destroying one’s body from the inside out, it normally isn’t deadly and usually just results in food poisoning symptoms. However, with such high risks of infection, it pays to be smart with food choices and what kind of waters you bathe wounds in.
End recommendation – cook the oyster first.
By: Abigail Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)