For most people, eating raw oysters carries only a small risk of mild illness. But for others, the consequences can be dangerous and even deadly. A bacterium called Vibrio Vulnificus that is in some oysters can cause severe illness and death in people with certain underlying medical conditions.

Every year, many of us eat raw shellfish, especially oysters and clams. Orleans Parish Coroner, Dr. Dwight McKenna, says you should know the facts and dangers when it comes to eating raw or undercooked shellfish.

Here are the facts about Vibrio Vulnificus, the illness associated with raw or undercooked shellfish:

  1. It’s considered the most lethal of the Vibrios inhabiting brackish and salt water.
  2. It occurs naturally in warm, coastal areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico.
  3. It’s found in higher concentrations from April through October when coastal waters are warm.

Who’s at Risk?

If you’re healthy, you’re not at risk. People who are at high risk include those with liver disorders, including hepatitis, cirrhosis and liver cancer; hemochromatosis; diabetes and those with immune compromising conditions, such as HIV/AIDS and cancer or those who are undergoing treatments.

Also, those who take prescribed medicine to decrease stomach acid levels or who have had gastric surgery are also at risk. Experts say, when you eat raw or undercooked shellfish, the bacteria enters the digestive tract and multiplies rapidly. In addition to ingestion, high-risk individuals can become infected when cuts, burns or sores come in contact with seawater with Vulnificus. Dr. McKenna says this infection is usually an acute illness in healthy people. Those who recover should not expect long term consequences. Infection in high-risk people, however, has a 50% fatality rate. High-risk individuals who recover from wound infection often develop necrosis that often requires skin grafting or limb amputation.

Dr. McKenna says there are ways to prevent infection. High-risk patients should not eat raw oysters or clams. Also, be encouraged to only eat well cooked oysters and clams. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about one in four people with a serious infection die, as quickly as within a day or two of illness onset. Each year there is an average of 50 culture-confirmed cases, 45 hospitalizations, and 16 deaths reported from the Gulf Coast states, including Louisiana.

If you get the illness, it’s critical to seek medical attention.