A death in Louisiana is raising fears that a dangerous, flesh-eating bacteria is lurking within raw oysters.
In September, Texas resident Jeanette LeBlanc ate fresh, raw oysters bought at a local market while visiting family in Louisiana. Within 36 hours, she began experiencing a severe rash on her legs and trouble breathing. After her condition worsened, she was taken to a local hospital, where doctors told her had an infection of the bacteria vibrio.
Vibrio is not the most common cause of the flesh-eating disease necrotizing fasciitis – most of those cases are caused by a type of staph infection. Vibrio, however, can cause the same effect – causing the flesh to be eaten away on the extremities, usually the legs. It can also attack internal organs, which caused even more problems for LeBlanc.
LeBlanc fought for 21 days, but died on October 15, according to her wife Vicki Bergquist.
While a vibrio infection is very rare, doctors warn it is possible to get it from raw oysters and warm waters (like where a river meets the ocean) which allow the bacteria to multiply.
Here are pictures of the infection’s effects on LeBlanc. Be warned: the images are disturbing.
According to the CDC, vibrio bacteria naturally live in certain coastal waters and are present in higher concentrations when water temperatures are warmer during the months between May and October.
Symptoms of vibriosis (illness from vibrio bacteria) include watery diarrhea, often accompanied by abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills.
Most people become infected by eating raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters.
Others can become infected if they have a cut or open wound that gets exposed to brackish water — a mixture of fresh and sea water, often found where rivers meet the sea — where the bacteria may be found.
Vibrio causes 80,000 illnesses each year in the United States, according to the CDC. About 52,000 of those cases involved contaminated food. Most people recover after a few days.
In severe cases, often involving the type known as Vibrio vulnificus, the bacteria can lead to bloodstream infections and blistering skin lesions, which may require limb amputations. The CDC says between 15 percent and 30 percent of such cases are fatal.
So does this mean that everyone should swear off oysters? Not necessarily, experts say.
“Our Gulf Coast waters definitely can sustain the growth of this organism,” Dr. Fred Lopez with the Department of Internal Medicine at the LSU School of Medicine, told CBS New Orleans affiliate WWL-TV.
The bacteria gets into oysters’ tissue since they feed by filtering water, and that bacteria could still be in raw or undercooked oysters you might eat.
Anyone can get sick from vibriosis, but it’s rare.
“For most people, eating raw oysters carries only a risk of mild illness, but for others, the consequences can be dangerous and even deadly,” explained Dr. Duc Vugia, chief of the Infectious Diseases Branch at the California Department of Public Health, on a CDC podcast in 2013.
People with underlying health conditions, including liver disease, diabetes, cancer, HIV or a weakened immune system, are at an increased risk of more serious illness from vibrio.
“If you get typical food poisoning with vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and you’ve had raw oysters, you ought to consider this infection,” Dr. David Winter with Baylor Hospital in Dallas, told CBS Dallas Forth Worth after LeBlanc’s death. “If you’ve got those symptoms, you need to get to the emergency room right away and get treated.”
There’s no easy way to tell the difference between a contaminated oyster and those that are not — vibrio is not something you can see, smell or taste.
So, to reduce your chance of getting vibriosis, experts recommend eating oysters cooked, not raw.
“Have them cooked. Have them fried, have them boiled,” Lopez said. “You need to have high, sustained temperatures to kill the organism.”