Flesh-Eating Bacteria Cause Deaths in 3 Coastal States

2 min read

Aug. 21, 2023 -- Flesh-eating bacteria have killed eight people along the Eastern Seaboard, prompting health officials to urge people to take precautions around warm sea water or when cooking or eating shellfish.

The bacteria, called Vibrio vulnificus, is considered rare but can infect open wounds or infect people after they’ve eaten contaminated shellfish. People at particular risk are those who have unprotected cuts and wounds, those with liver disease or cancer, and people taking medicine to decrease stomach acid levels.

Florida has reported 26 cases and five deaths, New York state has reported one person who died from a wound infection, and Connecticut reported two people with wound infections and one person infected from eating raw, non-local oysters. Two of the people infected in Connecticut have died.

Vibrio vulnificus can cause severe infections when open cuts and wounds, including recent surgeries, piercings, and tattooed skin, are exposed to water containing the bacteria,” the Connecticut Department of Health warned in a statement. “Vibrio are being referred to in the media as ‘shellfish bacteria;’ however, these bacteria are naturally occurring in the salt and brackish water. Shellfish can accumulate any contaminants, including bacteria, that are present in the water, which is why they are a highly regulated food commodity.”

To prevent infection with the bacteria, the CDC recommends people with cuts or wounds stay out of saltwater or other non-freshwater areas, including refraining from wading at the beach. Another option is to cover wounds with waterproof bandages if they could come in contact with those types of water or with raw or undercooked seafood or its juices. Wounds or cuts should be washed thoroughly with soap and water after having contact with potentially contaminated water or seafood. 

People with compromised immune systems should avoid handling or eating raw seafood, New York health officials advised. The Florida Department of Health said that all people can prevent the bacterial infection by refraining from eating raw oysters and other raw shellfish. Florida health officials also suggested:

  • Cooking shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels thoroughly
  • Boiling shellfish still in the shell until the shells open, then boiling for 5 more minutes; or steaming until the shells open and then cooking for 9 more minutes
  • Not eating shellfish that do not open during cooking
  • Boiling shucked oysters at least 3 minutes, or frying them in oil at least 10 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Preventing cross-contamination of cooked foods with raw seafood and juices from raw seafood
  • Wearing protective clothing such as gloves when handling raw shellfish, and washing hands thoroughly afterward