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Flesh-eating bacteria linked to three deaths around Long Island Sound. Here’s how to stay safe

Stephan Savoia

A Suffolk County, N.Y. resident has died from complications related to vibriosis, a disease caused by the bacteria Vibrio.

The disease is rare, but is more common in people who are immunosuppressed, especially if they have cirrhosis of the liver.

Two Connecticut residents died from the disease last month after eating uncooked shellfish, possibly oysters, from out of state and exposing open wounds to warm ocean waters where the bacteria thrives, including Long Island Sound.

Here’s what you need to know, according to Connecticut and New York epidemiologists:

What is Vibrio? 

Vibrio is a flesh eating bacteria that thrives in warm, brackish, salty water. It can cause a bacterial infection called vibriosis.

“It's a bacteria that likes to live in marine environments, and oysters associated with marine environments as well,” said Dr. Ulysses Wu, chief epidemiology and system director at Hartford Healthcare.

How is it spread?

Most infections are caused by eating raw shellfish, especially oysters. It can also be spread through warm, salty (brackish) water that gets into open wounds.

It does not change the smell, taste, or appearance of the shellfish.

“If the oyster is sitting in contaminated water, then it can get contaminated with the Vibro and then when you eat a raw oyster or clam, you'll get sick,” said Dr. Bruce Farber, public health and epidemiology chief at Northwell Health. “The other way that it happens with Vibrio vulnificus is that if you're in contaminated water, and you have an open wound, you can get infected through the skin. And that causes severe soft tissue infections.”

It can not be spread person to person.

What are the symptoms of vibriosis? 

Symptoms of the gastrointestinal infection are similar to other GI illnesses. They include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills. Symptoms usually surface within 24 hours of infection and last 2-3 days.

The skin infection is easier to diagnose.

“I use the analogy with Vibrio vulnificus, it would be like how do you know if I've been hit by a truck,” Dr. Farber said. “I mean, it is profound what it will do to somebody. The skin infections when you get infected from contaminated water with an open wound produces terrible pain, blistering destruction of the skin, enormous inflammation and swelling and is often associated with fever, chills, and sepsis.”

Who is at risk? 

Anyone can get Vibriosis, but immunocompromised people, especially those with cirrhosis of the liver, are particularly at risk.

“People with hepatitis, people with cirrhosis, alcoholics who may or may not have liver disease, people with hereditary iron overload syndromes, which tends to affect the liver as well,” Dr. Wu said. “These are the people that are going to be at highest risk.”

All three of the fatalities in Connecticut and New York occurred in residents over age 60.

Is it treatable? 

Vibriosis is treatable with antibiotics. Patients can recover at home.

“There are certainly a number of antibiotics that can be utilized,” said Dr. Susan Donelan, director of healthcare epidemiology at Stony Brook Medicine. “But for patients that have the most concerning and life threatening Vibrio infections, if they develop necrosis, or necrotizing fasciitis, which is a destruction of the underlying muscle and tissue, it may be necessary in extreme circumstances in order to save the life, to perform debridement in that area, or amputation.”

Most people who contract the disease recover within a few days, but extreme cases can result in limb amputations or death. Around 20% of Vibrio vulnificus cases are deadly, but contracting the disease is rare.

What can you do to avoid it? 

The easiest way to avoid infection is to skip raw seafood and stay out of the ocean if you have an open wound.

“If people have open wounds or cuts, they should try to avoid coming into contact with seawater or brackish water. Because those are the places where, if these bacteria are present, they'll be present in higher numbers and that may provide them more of a risk than they might otherwise have," Dr. Donelan said. "And of course if anyone is immune compromised, I would suggest that this would be a good time to avoid raw seafood from which the origin is unclear.”

If you feel sick within 24 hours after consuming raw shellfish or swimming in brackish water, contact your doctor.

Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.