A plate of freshly shucked oysters might be a treat for many bivalve fans — but they could be a health risk under the wrong conditions.
Rodney Jackson, described as a “community leader” in Pensacola, died Aug. 9 after being sickened by oysters he purchased at a local market. After first experiencing “mild symptoms,” he decided not to go to the hospital because of long wait time, according to the Pensacola News Journal, but later had trouble breathing and was taken to the intensive care unit, where he died.
A few weeks earlier, Roger “Rocky” Pinkney of South Florida died two days after eating the bivalves while celebrating his birthday at a Fort Lauderdale seafood restaurant. He arrived at a hospital with a fever and abdominal pain, the South Florida SunSentinel reports. There, he was diagnosed with vibrio vulnificus and underwent emergency surgeries and a double amputation.
The vibrio vulnificus bacterial strain can cause mild symptoms such as diarrhea in healthy people, experts say. But in people with underlying conditions, it can cause life-threatening blood infections. For most people, most of the time, eating raw oysters is safe. But doctors and health officials say that people with certain health issues need to be especially careful.
Know your risk. People with liver or kidney disease, diabetes, and people whose immune systems are weakened by diseases like HIV or by drugs used in cancer treatment are particularly vulnerable to being seriously sickened, experts say. Not everyone with these risk factors who encounters the bacteria will get sick, said Fred Lopez, a professor of medicine and a specialist in infectious diseases at Louisiana State University, but most seriously ill vibriosis patients have them. “We need to be educating people that if they have these underlying conditions, they should not be eating oysters from waters where there is vibrio,” he says.
Know your oysters. Vibrio bacteria is naturally occurring, and it concentrates inside oysters and other shellfish as they filter the water around them. It flourishes in warmer water, which the CDC describes as above 68 degrees. Many people know the potential risk in eating oysters from Gulf states in the warmer months, and the CDC says that most vibrio-related deaths take place between May and October. In 2003, California banned the sale of raw Gulf oysters harvested between April 1 and Oct. 31 unless they have been treated to kill the bacteria.
But Lopez notes that warming temperatures might mean that common wisdom doesn’t hold. “Climate change may not just be lengthening the period but also extending the geographical extent,” he said, noting that even the Chesapeake Bay might see temperatures that would allow the bacteria to thrive.
And an oyster with vibrio bacteria doesn’t look or smell any different from one without, so if you are at a higher risk, you should check with your oyster purveyor to see where the supply is from.
Ignore the myths. You might have heard that dousing raw oysters with hot sauce or lemon juice kills the harmful bacteria. That might be possible, Lopez said, but only for the stuff on the surface of the oyster. The internal tissue of the oyster still might carry it.
Try them cooked. Cooking oysters properly kills off bacteria, rendering them safe to eat, even for vulnerable people. The CDC recommends that shucked oysters be boiled or fried (at 375 degrees) for at least three minutes. Or you can broil them three inches from heat for three minutes, or bake them at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. This isn’t a culinary crime by any stretch — cooked oysters can be delicious (like these grilled ones, featuring garlic, butter and Worcestershire).