No, sushi probably won’t give you flesh-eating bacteria

In the wake of Hurricane Ian, Florida residents face another deadly threat — a surge in flesh-eating bacteria caused by the swelling floods.

cases of Vibrio vulnificus, which live in brackish, salty waters and spoil meat have doubled since the hurricane devastated western and central Florida. The state has reported 64 infections and 13 deaths this year, according to the state health department, compared to 34 cases and 10 deaths for all of 2021.

That’s because the bacteria thrive in brackish water, where sewage enters coastal waters. But even before Hurricane Ian, Vibrio vulnificus was already increasing, experts said news week.

Vibrio vulnificus is becoming more prevalent in Gulf Coast waters due to warming temperatures from climate change, falling salinity and sanitation,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “These factors, too, can lead to confluence during hurricanes and tropical storms.”

Man goes on railroad tracks in flood
Here a man walks along train tracks surrounded by flood waters on the Peace River on October 4, 2022 in Arcadia, Florida. In the wake of Hurricane Ian, Florida residents face another deadly threat — a surge in flesh-eating bacteria caused by the swelling floods.
Sean Rayford/Stringer/Getty Images North America

People with open wounds, cuts, or abrasions can be exposed to the bacteria if they come into contact with contaminated water.

“Some of these bacteria will stick to your wounds and they’ll get in there and take hold,” said Dr. Anthony Ouellette, Professor of Biology and Chemistry at Jacksonville University. “Then they divide and divide and divide in very high numbers, and as they do, they start releasing toxins, some of which will break down your tissues.”

After the tissue around a wound has been killed, the bacteria can enter the body and lead to blood poisoning and organ failure. Some patients require surgery or amputations, while others can die within days.

Infections can also result from eating raw shellfish, especially oysters. The bacteria adhere to particles in estuaries and salt marshes where oysters live.

“These particles enter an oyster through an oyster filter feeder. Oysters pump a lot of water,” Ouellette said.

These stories have Florida residents alarmed, with some issuing dire warnings on social media.

A virus tweet by user @Priscilla_dgaf said: “DO NOT eat RAW SUSHI or any RAW seafood for the next few weeks. Whatever you do [have] There have been some cases of flesh-eating bacteria!”

The tweet garnered over 60,000 likes and 25,000 retweets, but Ouellette said they’re unlikely to sign a deal Vibrio vulnificus of sushi.

“Anything that was on the surface of the water can be contaminated,” he said. “When people eat raw fish, they don’t usually eat the skin.”

If you don’t eat the skin — or if the skin has been cooked — you’re unlikely to get sick, Ouellette said. However, you could become infected if you cut your hand and handle raw seafood before cooking it.

Both Hotez and Ouellette emphasized that the level of risk varies greatly from person to person. Although some young, healthy people have died from the disease, the risk of serious illness is much higher if a person is immunocompromised or has diabetes, liver or kidney disease.

They advised seeing a doctor if you see signs of skin infection, such as swelling, redness, and blisters. They may also have fever, chills, dizziness, vomiting, and diarrhea. If you have a cut that feels unusually hot or hurts more than it should, that’s another clue to call the doctor, Ouellette said.

news week reached out to the Florida Department of Health for comment. No, sushi probably won’t give you flesh-eating bacteria

Rick Schindler

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