Vibrio Vulnificus is rare saltwater bacteria found in warm marine waters. Direct contact with the seawater with an open wound risks exposure. If the bacteria enter an open wound, it can cause infections and skin ulcers, symptoms of what some describe as the “flesh-eating” bacteria. If ingested, Vibrio Vulnificus can cause stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Although healthy people typically have mild symptoms treatable with antibiotics, anyone with a weakened immune system, and in particular liver disease, can have serious complications with this type of infection. If the bacteria get into the bloodstream then fever, chills, blistering skin lesions, septic shock, and even death can occur.
Despite the potentially nasty effect it can have, Maggie Hall of the Florida Department of Health’s Pinellas County office says it’s best not to call it “flesh-eating” bacteria. “There is no such medical term, and the organism is not a Pac-man consuming Pac-dots,” Hall said.
In order to avoid exposure and infection, make sure that you are cleaning and cooking your seafood properly and thoroughly before eating it. For shellfish in the shell, boil until the shells open and continue boiling for at least another 5 minutes. If steaming, make sure to steam until the shells open and then for another 9 minutes after that. Boil shucked oysters at least 3 minutes or fry them in oil at least 10 minutes at 375°F. Do not eat shellfish that do not open during cooking. Also take appropriate care to avoid cross-contamination between raw seafood and other foods. Always wear protective clothing, such as gloves, when handling raw shellfish.
The Florida Department of Health, which issues warnings every year ahead of the summer season, advises eating only cooked shellfish. Do not eat raw seafood harvested from Florida waters. Anyone with cuts or other wounds on the skin should avoid saltwater beaches.
Florida and other Gulf Coast states, plus Maryland, have the highest rates of infection in the nation, officials say. Nearly 1,000 people reported being infected by the bacteria between 1988 and 2006, but officials say the disease often goes unreported. Vibrio Vulnificus cannot be spread from person to person.
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