At least 27 Floridians have been sickened this year – and nine have died– from infections of Vibrio vulnificus, a deadly bacterium that lives in warm seawater and is commonly associated with eating raw oysters and other shellfish. The figure came from a news release published last week by the Florida Department of Health. Of the nine who died, three are known to have contracted Vibrio infections from eating oysters. Another four cases were likely caused by exposure to seawater, possibly with open wounds becoming infected by Vibrio bacteria. The exposure history of the remaining two deaths was unknown. Of the 18 victims who survived, two reported eating raw oysters, while two had unknown exposures. The remaining 14 had some type of wound with exposure to seawater, according to a spokeswoman for the health department. Beyond avoiding eating raw shellfish, the health department cautioned that this was also an important reminder to avoid swimming in warm or brackish seawater with an open wound. The health department supplied this tally of the number of Vibrio cases and deaths reported in Florida each year since 2008:

  • 2008: 15 cases, 5 deaths
  • 2009: 24 cases, 7 deaths
  • 2010: 32 cases, 10 deaths
  • 2011: 35 cases, 13 deaths
  • 2012: 27 cases, 9 deaths
  • 2013: 27 cases, 9 deaths (as of Oct. 1)

When ingested, Vibrio can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Wounds infected with Vibrio may lead to skin breakdown and ulcers. If Vibrio enters the bloodstream, it can caused fevers, chills, decreased blood pressure and blistering skin lesions. Bloodstream Vibrio infections have a 50-percent mortality rate. Individuals with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly or children, are much more susceptible to severe Vibrio infections and are advised to avoid eating raw shellfish. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012 Vibrio cases in the U.S. increased by 43 percent compared to a study period covering 2006-2008. Vibrio is also the most underreported foodborne pathogen, according to CDC. For every case of Vibrio infection that gets diagnosed, the agency estimates another 142 cases go undiagnosed. For more information on Vibrio, Food Safety News published a report on Sept. 23 entitled, “Emerging Pathogens: Vibrio Cases in Oysters Expected to Continue Increasing.”