VERIFY: Can eating raw oysters be fatal?

According to CDC data, there are an estimated 80,000 cases of illness caused by vibrio infection every year.

NEW ORLEANS (WWL-TV) - The headline seemed unbelievable: “Woman Dies From Flesh-Eating Bacteria After Eating Raw Oysters.”

One of our viewers wanted to know if it was one of those urban myths or a legitimate news story with a warning about what can happen when people with certain medical conditions eat raw or undercooked oysters or shellfish.

The story itself turned out to be true.

According to KLFY-TV in Lafayette, where the story originated, a Texas woman was visiting Louisiana a few weeks ago and bought some oysters in Westwego after a day of crabbing along the coast.

Hours later, the station reported, she began to have trouble breathing and developed rashes. She died 21 days later. Doctors said she became infected with vibrio bacteria, her partner told the station.

But can that be a killer?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vibrio bacteria live in coastal water, the same place as oysters. It’s more common in the warmer months between May and October.

“Our Gulf Coast waters definitely can sustain the growth of this organism,” said Dr. Fred Lopez with the Department of Internal Medicine at the LSU School of Medicine.

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.

It turns out that anyone can get sick from vibriosis, but it’s rare. Among those likely to be affected, according to the CDC, are people who have liver disease, cancer, diabetes or HIV, or those who recently had stomach surgery or take medicine for stomach acid.

How do you know if the oysters you’re about to suck down have the bacteria? You can’t know. An oyster that contains the vibrio bacteria doesn’t look, taste or smell any different from an oyster that doesn’t have the bacteria, according to the CDC.

There’s only one tried-and-true way to make sure any oyster you want to eat is safe.

“Have them cooked. Have them fried, have them boiled,” Lopez said. “You need to have high, sustained temperatures to kill the organism.”

The woman from Texas who died also had been crabbing along the coast, and some vibrio species can cause a skin infection when an open wound is exposed to brackish or saltwater, Lopez said.

According to CDC data, there are an estimated 80,000 cases of illness caused by vibrio infection every year. The agency estimates about 52,000 cases are the result of eating contaminated food.

Those who ingest a certain strain of the bacteria, known as vibrio vulnificus, can get seriously ill and might need intensive care or limb amputation. About one in four people with that type of infection die, according to the CDC.

While symptoms of vibrio infection -- usually diarrhea and vomiting -- generally go away within three days, we can verify that in some rare cases, there are people dealing with certain medical conditions for whom eating raw oysters can be fatal.

“It’s not extremely common,” Lopez said. “But in this part of the country, we should be attuned to it.”

VERIFY sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Dr. Fred Lopez

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