2 people in Florida have died after eating raw oysters: What to know about eating the shellfish

Health officials warn that people can be infected with Vibrio vulnificus, bacteria that can cause severe and life-threatening illness, when they eat raw shellfish, particularly oysters.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A restaurant customer in Fort Lauderdale has died of a bacterial infection after eating raw oysters. A man in Pensacola, Florida, died the same way this month. Both cases involved oysters from Louisiana.

Gary Oreal, who manages the Rustic Inn, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that the man who died had worked years ago at the restaurant famous for garlic crabs.

“Over the course of 60 years, we have served a couple billion oysters, and we never had anyone get sick like this guy did,” Oreal said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Vibrio bacteria doesn’t make an oyster look, smell, or taste any different. The agency said about 80,000 people get vibriosis in the United States each year, and about 100 people die from it.

Inspectors from the Florida Department of Health checked out the restaurant's kitchen and examined its oyster inventory the day after the man became ill, Oreal told the newspaper.

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“We passed with flying colors and we were allowed to continue to sell oysters,” he said, adding the oysters being served now are from Louisiana. “If there was a problem with the oyster bed, we would know it because others would have gotten sick.”

The restaurant has a sign warning patrons about the risks of eating raw shellfish.

“Oysters are top of the mountain for dangerous foods to eat,” Oreal said. “I have eaten them my entire life and will continue. But you are putting yourself at risk when you do it.”

The Florida Department of Health says 26 people in the state this year have become infected with the bacteria and six of them died after eating raw shellfish, including oysters. In 2021, 10 people died out of 34 people sickened. In 2020, seven people died among the 36 who became ill.

Last week, a man in Pensacola died after contracting the bacteria from oysters he bought at a market, the Pensacola News Journal reported. That oyster also came from Louisiana, officials said.

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What to know about eating raw oysters

A seemingly healthy oyster can be riddled with bacteria but show no sign of contamination, according to Dr. Robert "Wes" Farr, a physician and professor at the University of West Florida.

The chances of falling ill from consuming an oyster are rare, but the chances increase significantly with underlying conditions such as liver disease, diabetes or cancer. Oysters can also be especially risky to those on medications that reduce stomach acid, which is why Farr chooses not to consume them himself.

Summer remains a particularly notable time for cases of the infection, according to Farr, because of the heat of the water, especially in more shallow areas.

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Oftentimes, the illness can be cured using an antibiotic to kill off the infection, Farr said.

Although an oyster may feel cool to the touch, there is a good chance the temperature has risen above 40 degrees as the ice melts, which puts them in unsafe territory for consumption.

The safest way to consume an oyster, Farr said, is simply to cook it, which kills any bacteria.

Contributing: Brittany Misencik, Pensacola News Journal; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2 people in Florida have died after eating raw oysters from Louisiana