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Vibrio vulnificus is Expanding Thanks to Warming Oceans

December 24, 2023
In The News Personal Injury Law vibrio vulnificus bacteria

This story is about a real-life, flesh-eating bacteria. It’s called Vibrio vulnificus and I have written about it before because I have represented victims who got the disease from eating raw, untreated oysters.

I’m writing about it again because climate change is making it worse and its reach is expanding. If you love oysters (as I do!), please read this story.

What is Vibrio vulnificus?

Vibrio is, literally, a flesh-eating disease that leads to some of the worst disfigurement I’ve ever seen, including amputations of up to all four limbs. But the amputations that result from Vibrio are still preferable to death, which is another very real risk of Vibrio.

Vibrio is typically caught by people who eat raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico, but I’ve seen cases in people who ate them from as far north as Delaware. If you eat an oyster that contains the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, you have a 50% chance of dying. If you do live, you will probably lose both of your legs and maybe your arms.

In 2016, 46 people contracted Vibrio vulnificus in the waters off of Florida’s coast and 10 of those people died within days of being infected. Every single one of the people who survived the bacteria suffered disfigurement or lasting illness.

Alarming Trend: Vibrio is Expanding as Oceans Warm

The reason I’m writing about the disease again is because Vibrio is expanding. I’m also one of the few Vibrio Vulnificus attorneys in the country who knows how to defend victims against the food processing companies that let this deadly bacteria into the food and restaurant system. But more about that aspect of my work later.

First, let’s examine why Vibrio cases are on the rise. Consider this report from the Center for Public Integrity:

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the number of Vibrio infections from the three most common species — V. vulnificus included — doubling nationally over the 11 years the agency has tracked it in all states, from 433 in 2007 to 897 in 2016. 

Bruce Gutelius of the CDC’s bacterial-infection monitoring branch attributes that in part to the “warming of coastal waters.” The spike in V. vulnificus, he said, is “particularly concerning, given the high mortality rate.”

In the Gulf of Mexico, long a hotbed for Vibrio illnesses, regional cases have doubled from 2007 to 2016. The summer water temperature has risen steadily over roughly the same period, averaging 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in the 1980s.

In the Chesapeake Bay region — a new hotspot — Vibrio infections have increased almost two-fold from 2007 to 2019, according to state data. Warm season temperatures in that time were around 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the previous 25 years.

The trend is playing out in nearby Pennsylvania, where the 490 percent surge in its rate of Vibrio infections tops the Eastern seaboard states, federal data shows. Researchers forecast more vibriosis outbreaks in and around bays and tributaries of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia as climate change accelerates.

This past summer, an outbreak occurred as far north as Connecticut, where the state health department issued a rare alert after five residents contracted the deadly V. vulnificus bacteria.

Meanwhile, in the Carolinas, rising seas and intensifying storms are washing the virulent strains further inland. Since 2007, when the CDC required states to report Vibrio cases, South Carolina has seen a three-fold increase in its incidence rate and North Carolina’s reported rate soared 1.6 times. By 2019, according to more recent state data, the bacteria had sickened at least 550 people in both states.

Simply put: Climate change is causing a spike in Vibrio blooms in the warming oceans which, in turn, has caused a spike in human illnesses and deaths.

There used to be an old adage among those of us that track Vibrio. We used to say, “Don’t eat oysters in months that don’t end in ER.” Those are summer months and those are bad months to eat oysters. But that adage isn’t true anymore because our oceans are warming up, creating an expanding habitat for Vibrio.

Top Vibrio Vulnificus Attorney

So, why is a Denver personal injury attorney so obsessed with Vibrio Vulnificus? Because I tried my first case against the oyster industry in 2005 and I couldn’t believe the victim’s devastation. Since then, I have monitored the oyster industry and Vibrio trends, hoping to keep people safe.

Casting humility aside, there are very few attorneys in the country who understand Vibrio Vulnificus. In that small population of attorneys, I am a leader. My first Vibrio case came to me in 2005 through a friend who called and said his buddy was in the hospital, possibly from poisoning he received from an oyster. When I arrived at the hospital, I was utterly shocked at what I found: this poor man was fighting for his life because the bacteria were attacking his internal organs, but it had also attacked both of his legs. Imagine both his legs from the knees down as black as shoe leather because they had already died.

Ultimately, the hospital saved the man’s life, but he lost both legs above the knees. I took his case and we sued everyone who touched the oysters: harvesters, processors, shippers, wholesalers and the restaurant. We were able to settle and secured a large sum for the victim.

Here’s the really upsetting part: the oyster industry knows about this problem and many processors ignore the very simple remedies to keep people safe. Essentially, there are ways to pasteurize the oysters to kill the bacteria. Yet, many oyster manufacturers still fight the simple cure for this awful risk.


The Good Oyster Producers Took a Hit

Adding insult to injury, there was a small group of oyster producers that were doing it right – processing the oysters in a way that killed the vibrio. But many of those companies were hit by Hurricane Florence in 2018, pausing or destroying their business.

So now we have a double-whammy in the oyster industry: A growing Vibrio habitat and a shrinking number of processors that deliver safe oysters to the food industry.


How Can You Eat Oysters Safely?

Earlier in this article, I mentioned that I love eating oysters, and I do! But I never – repeat, NEVER – eat live oysters. Most raw oysters are alive. If your oyster is alive, it was never treated properly.

One company that processes oysters safely is AmeriPure. Their website states: “They [oysters] go through an all-natural, patented water bath process that removes potentially harmful Vibrio bacteria to non-detectable levels. The oyster shells are never opened until they are hand shucked, so their fresh quality, flavor and natural juices are preserved.”

Essentially, the AmeriPure process kills the oyster and the Vibrio bacteria without actually cooking the oyster, preserving the taste that you’re craving. If you’re buying oysters or dining out, ask if the oysters were processed by AmeriPure.

Need Help with a Vibrio vulnificus Case?

I’m glad Vibrio is a relatively rare disease, but, because of its severity, I’m sad that anyone must suffer through so much pain. If you know someone who has suffered from Vibrio vulnificus or someone who died from the disease and you need help with a legal case, please contact us today for a free consultation.


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