On Oct. 5, 2018, in a seemingly ordinary transaction, Eddie and Patti Clinton, retired Wake Co., North Carolina educators/administrators, purchased two 10-pound bags of raw whole fresh shrimp. The original source of the crustaceans was a fisherman who reportedly harvested the shrimp in or near the New River in the southeastern area of the Tarheel State.
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Eddie placed the shrimp on ice in a cooler overnight. The next day he scooped the shrimp with his bare hands into smaller bags, then put them in his freezer. And, yes, he washed his hands after handling the raw shrimp.
Within about 24 hours, Eddie began experiencing soreness in his legs, shaking, feeling simultaneously hot and cold, loss of appetite, and slurred speech. By October 8, he was on life support at a Raleigh hospital in a medically-induced coma. The next day, doctors determined Eddie was infected with Vibrio vulnificus.
Eddie’s heart, liver, and kidneys were affected by the V. vulnificus, and his left leg was amputated below the knee on November 6. “This has been a horrific journey and it will be a long road to recovery,” Patti relates. “But Eddie is alive and that’s what matters most.”
“The doctors suspect Eddie may have wiped his mouth with his hand or that he had a small cut on his hand when handling the shrimp, but they never found any open wound on him,” says Patti. “Every doctor that saw Eddie said they had never seen a case like this before, where a person was infected with Vibrio without ingesting it in food.”
According to the CDC, people become infected with vibriosis typically “by eating raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters.” Certain Vibrio species can also cause a skin infection when an open wound, which could be a cut or scrape, is exposed to raw seafood, raw seafood juices, or brackish or salt water, CDC says. Brackish water is a mixture of fresh and sea water, often found where rivers meet the sea.
CDC estimates that 80,000 people in the U.S. become sick with vibriosis each year, and 100 people die from their infection. About 52,000 of these illnesses are estimated to be the result of eating contaminated food. The most commonly reported Vibrio species, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, is estimated to cause 45,000 cases of vibriosis each year in the U.S.
When ingested, Vibrio bacteria can cause watery diarrhea, often accompanied by abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills, CDC says. Usually these symptoms occur within 24 hours of ingestion and last about three days. Severe illness is rare and typically occurs in people with a weakened immune system.
Most people with a mild case of vibriosis recover after about three days with no lasting effects, CDC points out. However, people with a V. vulnificus infection can get seriously ill and need intensive care or limb amputation. About one in four people with this type of infection die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill, CDC says.
Patti Clinton says her husband has diabetes, congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, plus he’s a smoker. “The doctors said most anyone else could have handled those shrimp we purchased with no negative health impacts, but since Eddie is an immuno-compromised senior male, he got life-threatening vibriosis,” she points out.
Postharvest Processing Pearls
Postharvest processing (PHP) methods can be used to reduce human-pathogenic Vibrio bacteria, such as V. vulnificus, from oysters intended for the raw, half-shell market, most especially those that are harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during warmer months when the organism is most prolific.