“Vibrio parahaemolyticus: Avoiding a ‘Pandemic’” Carol Kinney KIN502 FE California Baptist University 13 November, 2013
Warning: eating shellfish can be hazardous to your health. Researchers from several government agencies and research facilities in the United States and Western Europe have discovered a special strain of illness producing bacteria in some shellfish. The bacterium, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which was once only known to be present in the Pacific Ocean, is now present in the Atlantic Ocean (“Shellfish Toxin Spreading to Eastern U.S., Report Says” 16 Oct. 2013). The researchers are not concerned with the severity of the illness that humans can get by consuming contaminated shellfish, since the bacteria “causes nothing more than stomach distress” in most people. The real concern for researchers is that the bacterium is migrating from ocean to ocean, which has the potential to cause more severe health issues to humans and the environment on a pandemic scale. But by becoming educated about the bacteria and learning how to avoid contamination, a pandemic can be avoided. According to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Vibrio parahaemolyticus is a “bacterium in the same family as cholera,” thrives along the coasts of the United States and Canada during the summer months in water that is not as salient as the deeper oceans, but saltier than freshwaters of the inlands. The bacterium infects mainly oysters and clams, but can infect other fish through cross-contamination mainly through human interaction with it. The Food and Drug Administration for the United States says that humans who eat “raw, improperly cooked, or cooked, recontaminated fish and shellfish” or seafood that has been improperly stored and refrigerated are susceptible to “diarrhea, abdominal
cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills” lasting for about two to three days within “4-96 hours” after eating the contaminated seafood (“Bad Bug Book”). The concern that researchers have is that the recent spread of the bacterium in “about 3,000 miles to Pacific to Atlantic seaboards and 3,000 miles from the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. to Europe (Shellfish Toxin)” has the potential to become a major world health issue. Craig BakerAustin, Ph.D. of the Centre for Environment Fisheries an Aquaculture Science in the United Kingdom and his fellow researchers warn that there are several factors that can cause a major outbreak of “V. parahaemolyticus” that will cause more severe health problems (17 Oct. 2013). Similar outbreaks occurred in 1988, 1997 and 2004 (Baker-Austin, et al.) but were constrained geographically to the Pacific Northwest. The concern for Baker-Austin and his associates is that in 2012, not only were the outbreaks more widespread, affecting shellfish in New York and Spain, but also that the bacterium was discovered between April and August. April through June are not part of the normal expectation to see Vibrio parahaemolyticus illness, and the researchers are theorizing that the bacterium are being carried across the globe via ships are carrying it from ocean to ocean, continent to continent. Additionally, the researchers are concerned that global warming may play a key role in the spread of Vibrio parahaemolyticus. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that“during the first six months of 2012, sea surface temperature in the Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem were the highest ever recorded (Dawicki 2012).” The report also states that “this has implications for marine life from the smallest creatures to the largest marine mammals like whales.” In a similar report that the
NOAA released in April of this year, scientists reiterated the severity of the 2012 temperatures, saying that the rise in “temperature is . . . affecting distributions of fish and shellfish” and the spawning periods of sea life (Dawicki 25 Apr. 2013). Another factor that may contribute to the spread of the more resistant strain of Vibrio parahaemolyticus is that “Europe currently lacks systematic surveillance for” the bacteria which “limits the identification of new strains (Baker-Austin, et al). Not only does Europe lack the ability to track the number of cases of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, but so is the United States. The CDC states that “laboratories rarely use the selective medium that is necessary to identify this organism and it is likely that many cases are undetected.” Because of this limitation, it is hard for medical professionals to know just how many people are actually affected by the bacteria or will become affected due to the affects of global warming on the shellfish. Also, because the bacteria is spreading across the globe and international medical professionals do not have the capabilities to track its migration it is important for people to know how to avoid it and how to recognize the symptoms and treat it if they should become ill by Vibrio parahaemolyticus. The only surefire way to avoid coming in contact with Vibrio parahaemolyticus is to not eat or handle shellfish at all. However, for people who wish to eat shellfish, there are safety precautions that they can take. The CDC suggests that “most infections caused by V. parahaemolyticus in the United States can be prevented by thoroughly cooking seafood, especially oysters.” State health agencies and the federal FDA will often post information about the levels of Vibrio parahaemolyticus in commonly infected areas so that consumers of shellfish can know if the food is safe to eat or not (CDC).
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says to never “eat raw shellfish,” to boil the shellfish in the shell “until the shells open and continue boiling for 5 more minutes” or steaming until the shellfish open and steaming for “nine more minutes.” Other cooking advice from the same agency says to not eat any shellfish that does not open, do not keep raw seafood near other foods, eat it as soon as it is cooked and “use gloves when touching the raw shellfish” especially if the cook has a hand wound such as a cut or scrape. “People can also get sick if cooked food comes in contact with the germ.” They say this happens when cooks do not “properly” wash their hands or cookware and utensils before, during and after preparation, which transfers the bacteria. If a person should present with symptoms of Vibrio parahaemolyticus and have recently eaten shellfish, it is not always necessary to consult with a doctor, as the illness should run its course with increased liquid intake (CDC) and consumption of antacids (FDA). However, in severe cases when diarrhea, vomiting lasts for more than three days and/or high fever accompany the symptoms, a doctor should be consulted who may prescribe an antibiotic (CDC). Additionally, if the person has a compromised immune system due to other illnesses, is an alcoholic or has liver disease (CDC), it is important to see a doctor as the infection could spread to the “bloodstream (Shellfish Toxin)” and become life threatening. Dr. Michael H. Bross and associates say that if the person suspects that they have been infected by Vibrio parahaemolyticus and the symptoms are severe, last more than three days, or the person has a weakened immune system, it is imperative that they seek immediate medical attention so that Vibrio vulnificus can be ruled out (2007). According to Bross, Vibrio
vulnificus is more dangerous in that “is the leading cause of death related to seafood consumption in the United States.” While most people who die from Vibrio vulnificus have a “predisposing immunocompromising condition” such as HIV/AIDS, alcoholism and liver disease, others can also be affected. The bright side is that Bross says with proper medical attention and “treatment” death does not have to occur. Words such as pandemic, epidemic, infection, death and long Latin terms for common bacteria can be scary. Additionally, the reports on global warming can be distressing for the average person who may feel singularly powerless against such dire reports about the environment. It can also be discouraging to learn that in this day and age of technology that developed governments have yet to discover a way to better test for and track Vibrio parahaemolyticus. However, with proper education and care when touching, preparing and eating shellfish, Vibrio parahaemolyticus does not have to reach pandemic proportions and such precautions are within the power of every individual.
Cited Sources “Bad Bug Book. . .” U. S. Food and Drug Administration. Ed. 08 May 2013. Web. 10 Nov 2013. <www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/CausesOfIllnessBadBugBook/ Usm070452.htm>. Baker-Austin, Craig Ph.D. , et al. “Spread of Pacific Northwest Vibrio parahaemolyticus Strain.” Correspondance. The New England Journal of Medicine. 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1305535>. Bross, Michael H. MD., et al. « Vibro vulnificus Infection : Diagnosis and Treatment. American
Family Physician. 15 Aug. 2007. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. <www.aafp.org/afp/2007/0815/p539.html>. Dawicki, Shelley. “Sea Surface Temperatures Reach Record Highs on Northeast Continental Shelf.” NOAA 2012. Northeast Fisheries Science Center. 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <www.nefsc/noaa/gov/press_release/2012/SciSpot/SS1209>. “Sea Surface Temperatures Reach Highest Level in 150 Years on Northeast Continental Shelf.” NOAA. 2013. 25 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <www.nefsc/noaa/gov/press_release/2013/SciSpot/SS1304/>. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Vibrio parahaemolyticus.” n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/diseases/cd-vibrio-fact.shtml>. "Shellfish Toxin Spreading to Eastern U.S., Report Says." MedlinePlus. HealthDay. U.S. Library of Medicine. 16 Oct. 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2013. < http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_141614.html>. “Vibrio parahaemolyticus.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. n.d. Web. 11 Nov 2013. <www.cdc.gov/vibrio/vibriop.htm>.