3 die in New York and Connecticut from the infection spread through seawater and shellfish
Health officials in New York and Connecticut said three people in the New York City area have died in recent weeks and a fourth person has been hospitalized after contracting a flesh-eating bacteria infection that can be caused by eating raw shellfish or swimming in salt water.
Infection from the bacteria, called Vibrio vulnificus, is rare but very serious. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in five people who become infected die. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many survivors have lost limbs due to amputations
“We remind providers to look for cases of vibrio, which is not often the first diagnosis that comes to mind,” New York State Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said in a statement Wednesday.
He said people with open wounds should avoid swimming in warm seawater. People with weakened immune systems should use caution when eating or handling raw seafood.
One of the deaths was in the New York area of Suffolk County on Long Island. Two more were in Connecticut. And in the fourth case, also in Connecticut, someone fell ill and was later discharged from the hospital.
New York health officials said vibrio is caused by several types of bacteria, including Vibrio vulnificus, that can be found in salt water, especially when the weather is warm. Symptoms include diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting, fever, and chills. Exposure can also lead to ear infections and cause life-threatening sepsis and wound infections.
The flesh around an open wound can die, which is why Vibrio vulnificus is called a “flesh-eating” bacterium. “It gets really bad,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He said the infection can destroy soft tissue before it enters the bloodstream and causes sepsis.
He said healthy people shouldn’t be too concerned. But he said people with liver problems should be careful with seafood: “Eat shrimp instead of shellfish.”
In the Connecticut cases, two people had open wounds and were exposed to water in Long Island Sound, according to Christopher Boyle, a spokesman for the state health department. He said the exposure occurred in two different populations but wouldn’t be more specific.
A third citizen in Connecticut became ill after eating raw oysters, though not at a state restaurant, and not harvested from the sound, said Rebecca E. Murphy, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Agriculture.
“No one has ever contracted vibrio from eating shellfish or oysters in Connecticut,” Dr. Manisha Jothani, the state’s public health commissioner, said at a news conference earlier this week.
New York officials are still investigating whether the death in Suffolk County was caused by bacteria encountered in local waters or elsewhere.
The bacteria are most common in the summer months. As ocean temperatures rise, more people may be at greater risk of infection, according to a study published this spring in the journal Scientific Reports.
Once upon a time, bacteria were rare in northern Georgia, but they have been found farther north in recent years. The researchers found that from 1988 to 2018, wound infections from bacteria increased from 10 cases per year to 80 cases per year on the East Coast.
“This shows the interdependence between our health and the health of the oceans,” said Elizabeth Archer, lead author.
Other national highs have been associated with coastal surges, where infectious waters are pushed inland.
Last fall, after Hurricane Ian battered Florida, the state health department recorded what it called an “abnormal increase” in cases. After Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, at least five people died from diseases caused by Vibrio bacteria.
Connecticut has seen a few cases in recent years. One person died of Vibrio vulnificus infection in the state in 2019. In 2020, five cases were reported; Everything recovered. Infected subjects had open wounds and had been exposed to salt or brackish water.
Partially in response to the 2020 outbreak, the state is now testing oysters for Vibrio vulnificus, said Emily Marquis, an environmental analyst with the Office of Aquaculture and Laboratory Services.
David Carey, director of the office, said inspectors had never detected this in the state’s commercial oysters.
Connecticut, which has a thriving oyster industry, also introduced rules about storing and freezing oysters after a similar 2013 outbreak of a bacterial strain, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, sickened 23 people there.
Connecticut protocols are designed to keep oysters cold, less than or equal to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Oysters must be refrigerated or put into an ice slurry, depending on where they were harvested.
The Ministry of Agriculture said there had been no outbreaks of Vibrio since protocols were put in place in 2014.
Tessa said. Gitches, who trains farmers in seafood farming practices with the Connecticut Sea Grant and Yukon Expanded Program: “Maintaining moderate temperatures hinders the growth of bacteria.” “Which is what you want. That’s why we refrigerate anything.”
News of the deaths alarmed some Connecticut residents. But organizers of the annual Milford Oyster Festival, scheduled for Saturday, say they are confident about the safety.
“There’s no reason to worry about this,” said Trisha Kozlowski, who organizes all the oyster sales for the festival.
Organizers plan to supply 30,000 oysters, all harvested off the city’s coast. They are placed on ice or immediately refrigerated, she said, and festival staff check the temperature of the truck and oysters regularly.
“But we shudder on demand, so the oysters aren’t sitting around,” she said, adding, “Nothing’s changed. There’s no greater risk this year than ever before. And the risk is very low.”