Eating seafood? Beware Vibrio

This year there has been an increase in food-borne illness in the state of Virginia. Every year there are millions of cases of gastrointestinal (GI) infections in the U.S. Most of these are viral infections (“stomach flu”). However, 2010 saw a 100-percent rise in Vibrio bacterial infections in the commonwealth.

Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium that is found in marine environments, mainly coastal areas, waterways and estuaries. Individuals can be exposed to these bacteria in several ways: Eating raw or undercooked seafood, particularly raw oysters; swimming or wading in brackish waters; or having open wounds that are exposed to infected waters or infected food products, such as when preparing or processing seafood.

There are several different species of Vibrio bacteria that can potentially cause infections in humans. Vibrio cholerae, the causative agent in cholera, may be the most well-known; however, V. parahaemolyticus is the most common species in the U.S. and V. vulnificus, though less common, causes nearly 95 percent of deaths from Vibrio infections.

Vibrio gastrointestinal infections are more common in the warm months when people are frequenting the waterways of Virginia with swimming and boating and when fresh seafood consumption is at its highest. However, the holiday season can also be a time when individuals consume more “out of the ordinary” foods, particularly seafood.

With most gastrointestinal infections, whether viral or bacterial in origin, the symptoms are usually abdominal pain and/or cramping, nausea and vomiting and diarrhea. Individuals may feel tired or have body aches, headache, a low grade fever and a lack of desire or taste for foods.

Since the source of the infection is the marine environment or seafood, Vibrio infections generally will not be transmitted from person to person. This is in contrast to a viral stomach bug that can easily be contracted from close contacts such as family, coworkers or classmates.

In healthy individuals, gastrointestinal infections will usually be eradicated by the body’s normal defenses. People with chronic diseases, such as liver disease, alcoholism, anemia, cancers and conditions of immune suppression, are at higher risk for complications from an infection, particularly bacterial infections.

Complications can arise in these at-risk individuals when bacteria travel outside the GI tract and affect other parts of the body. These bacteria produce toxins and enzymes that can cause tissue destruction and damage to other major organs. In healthy individuals, the effects are limited primarily to the gastrointestinal tract, causing the symptoms listed above. Dehydration and loss of essential electrolytes can occur with any infected individual.

Therefore, the primary treatment is fluid replacement and rehydration. Though antibiotics are generally effective against bacteria, in the case of Vibrio infections, they do not shorten the course of the disease in an otherwise healthy individual. With severe infections in at-risk, hospitalized patients, antibiotics may be considered. Intravenous fluids are often necessary as well.

Prevention is once again the key to checking these infections. Avoid eating raw or undercooked seafood. Properly cook all foods according to the recommended guidelines. If you develop symptoms of gastrointestinal infection, make sure to take in plenty of fluids and contact your physician if symptoms persist or worsen.

The content in this column is for information purposes only and is not intended to be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices family medicine in Chesterfield.

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