Vibrio: a Serious Saltwater Threat
You may remember the uproar from just last summer about the “flesh-eating bacterium” found in the coastal waters of Texas. Well, it is about that time of year again.
That’s what we’re talking about. Found in brackish and salty waters, this bacterium poses a potential threat to many fishermen and their families.
Vibrio, the world’s leading culprit of contamination in shellfish, naturally live in certain coastal waters and are more densely populous between May and October when water temperatures are warmer. It’s during these months that about 80 percent of infections occur.
“Vibrio infections can occur in two ways,” Texas Dept. of State Health Services’ Chris Van Deusen said. “Eating raw or undercooked fish—usually shellfish, though it can be an issue with finfish— and contact with an open wound in water where the bacteria are present.”
Eating raw or undercooked seafood, particularly oysters, and exposing open wounds to brackish or salt water can increase a person’s chance for getting vibriosis. Vibrio consumption results in the most commonly reported illnesses and claims about 45,000 cases each year in the United States.
“Gastrointestinal symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain,” Van Deusen said. “Per the CDC, treatment is not necessary in mild cases, but patients should drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids lost through diarrhea.”
Even those not consuming potentially affected seafood should be cautious when in close proximity to warm, salty water, especially if there is any chance of having an open wound.
“In susceptible people, those with an underlying health condition, infection can lead to a life-threatening bloodstream infection,” Van Deusen said.
The infection becomes life-threatening when the bacteria reaches the bloodstream, causing symptoms such as high fever, sepsis, chills and perhaps the destruction of skin tissue, hence the term “flesh-eating.”
“We recommend staying out of coastal water with any kind of wound,” Van Deusen said. “If you cut yourself while in the water, get out of the water immediately, clean the wound promptly with soap and fresh water, and avoid going back in the water.”
Most immune systems fight off the bacteria, but having a compromised immune system, HIV, chronic liver disease, diabetes, or cancer increases the risk associated with vibriosis.
“Wound infection symptoms include blistering and ulceration, swelling and reddening, fluid build-up, fever, sepsis, and shock,” Van Deusen said.
Vibrio becomes active and deadly once it enters the bloodstream, and according to a CDC-conducted study from 1990 to 2010, a total of 602 (about 7.5 percent of the total 8,056 records) patients with a Vibrio illness were recorded as deceased.
“Illness onset can occur between 16 hours to 7 days after the consumption of contaminated food or exposure of a wound to contaminated water,” Van Deusen said.
Illnesses caused by vibrio have an endurance of two to seven days once the bacteria becomes active in the body.
Over the last five years, 2011 to 2015, the average number of Vibrio vulnificus infections reported in Texas has been 21 cases per year (ranging from 15 to 35). Of the 35 cases reported in 2015, 77 percent reported contact with water, 11 percent reported consumption of shellfish, mainly raw oysters, and for 11 percent, an exposure type could not be determined. Infections also appear to be seasonal in nature, with most (91 percent in 2015) occurring between May and October.
To reduce your chance of getting vibriosis, do not eat raw or undercooked shellfish, such as oysters, and if you have a wound (including cuts and scrapes), avoid contact with brackish or salt water or cover the wound with a waterproof bandage if there is even a slight chance you will be around or come into contact with brackish or salt water, raw seafood, or even raw seafood juices.
The CDC also reported that the median age of all the patients during that twenty-year time frame was 47 years, and the majority of patients were men—but hey, no pressure.
The cases are rare enough that you do not need to cancel your plans for a day at the beach, nor do you need to reconsider your weekend fishing trip with the guys. Having knowledge of the bacteria and using the precautions suggested in this article will put you ahead of the game.
CDC Tips for Avoiding Vibrio
• Flush out wound with sterile water. Use bottled water if you are on a boat. Do not use seawater.
• Wash the wound with soap and water.
• Flush and clean the wound with hydrogen peroxide. Disinfect with a generous application of Betadine. Hydrogen peroxide and Betadine are available at all drug stores and should be included as part of your first aid kit on any boat.
• If your wound starts to swell and turn bright red, go immediately to the closest emergency room. Inform the attending physician about the injury and that it was exposed to saltwater. Tell the ER physician you suspect a Vibrio infection.
Welcome Relief for Oyster Eaters
New technology has been introduced to maintain freshness, eliminate possible bacteria spoilage and reduce Vibrio levels according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Three new FDA-approved technologies are being used:
1. Individual quick-freezing (IQF) involves rapid freezing of half-shell oysters on trays, then adding a thin glaze of ice to seal in the natural juices before storing them frozen.
2. Heat-cool pasteurization is a patented process whereby live oysters are placed in warm water for a certain period of time and then immediately moved to cold water to halt the cooking process.
3. High hydrostatic pressure is also a patented process that subjects oysters to high pressures (roughly 45,000 pounds per square inch) for 3 to 5 minutes and sends them to market.
These are not guaranteed to eliminate vibrio but they are believed to greatly reduce exposure.
—story byDanielle Sonnier