In October 2017, a Texas woman purchased fresh oysters from a seafood market in Louisiana. Over the course of a few weeks, her body became severely infected by flesh-eating bacteria. 21 days after eating the oysters, she was dead. We dug deeper into what killed her, how she became infected, and how others can prevent this tragic ending.
What is this bacteria?
Jeanette LeBlanc was on vacation with her wife when she ate raw oysters and contracted vibriosis. Vibriosis is an infection caused by the vibrio bacteria, flesh-eating bacteria that enter your body through undercooked seafood. Consumption of popular dishes like “oysters on the half shell” can lead to the bacterial infection. Restaurants are required to warn customers about the risk of illness from raw foods. However, it’s often in small print at the bottom of the menu.
Coastal waters harbor vibrio
Warm, coastal waters are a breeding ground for the bacteria. They live naturally in places like the Gulf of Mexico because of its warm temperatures. During the warmer months, usually May through October, the bacteria count is higher. Warmer ocean temperatures cause an influx of the bacteria, so it’s most likely to infect you during this time.
Symptoms can mimic an allergic reaction
When LeBlanc realized something was wrong, she initially thought she was having an allergic reaction to the shellfish. She had respiratory problems and developed a rash on her legs. According to the CDC, rash and breathing issues are not typical symptoms of the infection. In most people, vibriosis lasts about a week and patients often recover.
However, a compromised immune system or weakened digestive system can create serious problems when fighting off the infection. LeBlanc had recently had gastric bypass surgery, which affected her ability to digest the oysters and rid herself of the bacteria. People like this are especially at risk.
Here’s why it’s so dangerous
Vibriosis is flesh eating. In those with strong immune systems, the bacteria usually don’t take over the body enough to eat away at the skin. However, in compromised immune systems, it can literally kill the tissue on your limbs. LeBlanc needed to have three separate surgeries to remove dead tissue from her legs and other parts of the body. CBS showed images of her limbs, and they were very graphic. After the third surgery, her body didn’t bounce back, and she couldn’t fight off the rest of the infection.
Even in those with strong immune systems, the CDC says the bacteria can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting. This can lead to serious dehydration. If you become too dehydrated, your body can go into shock. It can lead to death if untreated.
It’s more common than ever
In an interview with Bottom Line, food safety expert Bill Marler said raw shellfish are one of the few things he refuses to eat. “Oysters are filter feeders, so they pick up everything that’s in the water,” he said. Marler thinks climate change has been linked to a higher number of cases over the past five years. He said with the warming water temperatures, he’s seen more cases of vibriosis recently than ever before. Since oysters pick up anything through filter feeding, Marler says consuming them isn’t worth the risk.
Here’s what to do if you think you have it
Typical symptoms include nausea and diarrhea. If you think you have these symptoms, get to a doctor immediately. If you recently consumed raw or undercooked shellfish, be sure to tell your doctor. About 52,000 cases of vibriosis are caused by contaminated food each year, according to the CDC. While they are typically treated, it’s important to know your own health history to figure out whether or not you could be at risk of a potentially deadly battle with the infection.
‘On the half shell’ foods aren’t the only foods to worry about
Consuming any raw or undercooked food exposes your body to food-borne illness. More than 250 food-borne diseases could infect the human body. In 2015, Consumer Reports tested ground beef from 26 grocery stores and found dangerous bacteria present in 82% of their samples. Ground beef and chicken cause more hospitalization than any other meat — likely because they’re the most common. Check a food’s internal temperature before consuming it. Eat fried oysters, and make sure your burgers reach 160 degrees throughout.
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