The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) state director for North Dakota, former State Rep. Ann Kelsch, 58, died Tuesday in a New Orleans hospital. She was an apparent victim of Vibrio vulnificus bacteria from consuming raw or undercooked oysters.

Kelsch, who lived in Mandan, ND, was in New Orleans to visit family. She was hospitalized this past weekend. On Monday, her family opened a CaringBridge page saying Kelsch was “growing a bacteria that is a Vibrio species, likely vulnificus from consumption of raw oysters.”

Kelsch represented the Mandan House District for 21 years, from 1991 to 2012. She was chair of the North Dakota House Education Committee for 17 years.

The Mandan legislator was finally defeated in a primary after disclosures she and her lawyer husband, Tom, went for seven years without filing a federal income tax return. She continued to be a presence in the Capitol as a lobbyist. She and her husband caught up on their tax filings, and the subject did not become more serious for them.

The family has not said where Kelsch might have consumed raw or undercooked oysters. Anyone who wants to eat raw or undercooked oysters can easily find them in New Orleans.

And “oysters are safe to eat,” according to the Louisiana Department of Health. The state has about 8 million acres for shellfish growing areas and currently has about 1.2 million acres off-limits to harvest. It’s enough to produce about 1.3 million oysters a day, with many supplying the market in the New Orleans and the surrounding region.

Most Vibrio infections occur from May through October when water temperatures are warmer. About 100 deaths are due to Vibriosis each year in the United States out of an estimated 80,000 illnesses. Vibriosis infections are caused by consuming raw or undercooked seafood or exposing a wound to brackish or salt water.

Funeral arrangements for Kelsch are pending. In the meantime, bipartisan condolences are being offered by U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, state Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, former Democratic lawmaker Shirley Meyer and others.

Advice for consumers
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the important thing to remember is this: An oyster that contains harmful bacteria doesn’t look, smell, or even taste different from any other oyster. The only way to kill harmful bacteria in oysters is to cook them properly.

CDC also offers these food safety tips for oysters:

Before cooking, throw out any shellfish with open shells.

For oysters in the shell, either:

  • Boil until the shells open and continue boiling 3–5 more minutes, or
  • Steam until the shells open and continue steaming for 4–9 more minutes.

Only eat shellfish that open during cooking. Throw out shellfish that do not open fully after cooking.

For shucked oysters, either:

  • Boil for at least 3 minutes or until edges curl,
  • Fry for at least 3 minutes at 375°F,
  • Broil 3 inches from heat for 3 minutes, or
  • Bake at 450° F for 10 minutes.

What are the symptoms of vibriosis?
Most Vibrio infections from oysters, such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus infection, result in only diarrhea and vomiting. However, people with a Vibrio vulnificus infection can get very sick. As many as 1 in 3 people with a V. vulnificus infection die. This is because the infection can result in bloodstream infections, severe blistering skin lesions, and limb amputations. If you develop symptoms of vibriosis, tell your medical provider if you recently ate or handled raw shellfish or came into contact with brackish or salt water.

Who is more likely to get vibriosis?
Anyone can get sick from vibriosis, but you may be more likely to get an infection or severe complications if you:

  • Have liver disease, alcoholism, cancer, diabetes, HIV, or thalassemia.
  • Receive immune-suppressing therapy for the treatment of disease, such as for cancer.
  • Have an iron overload disease, such as hemochromatosis.
  • Take medicine to lower stomach acid levels, such as Nexium and Pepcid.
  • Have had recent stomach surgery.

How do people get vibriosis?
Most people become infected by eating raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters. Other people become infected by:

  • getting brackish or salt water in a wound, such as when they’re swimming, wading, or fishing;
  • cutting themselves on an item, such as a rock or pier, that has come into contact with brackish or salt water; or
  • getting raw seafood juices or drippings in a wound.

How can I stay safe?
Follow these tips to reduce your chances of getting an infection when eating or handling shellfish and other seafood:

  • Don’t eat raw or undercooked oysters or other shellfish. Fully cook them before eating, and only order fully cooked oysters at restaurants. Hot sauce and lemon juice don’t kill Vibrio bacteria, and neither does alcohol.
    • Some oysters are treated for safety after they are harvested. This treatment can reduce levels of vibrios in the oyster but it does not remove all harmful germs. People who are more likely to get vibriosis should not eat any raw oysters.
  • Separate cooked seafood from raw seafood and its juices to avoid cross contamination.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water after handing raw seafood.
  • Cover any wounds if they could come into contact with raw seafood or raw seafood juices or with brackish or salt water.
  • Wash open wounds and cuts thoroughly with soap and water if they are exposed to seawater, brackish water, or raw seafood or its juices.

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