Three people in New York and Connecticut have died from a rare flesh-eating bacterial infection, prompting officials to issue new guidance about both avoiding and diagnosing it.
Officials said a person in New York's Suffolk County, on eastern Long Island, and two people in Connecticut have died from infections linked to vibriosis, an illness caused by Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, which is found in seawater and raw and undercooked seafood and can cause skin breakdowns, ulcers and other symptoms.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul's office said Wednesday that the Suffolk County death was still being investigated to determine where the victim came into contact with the bacteria as it issued new guidance and urged residents to take precautions.
More information about the Suffolk County victim, including when the victim died, was not immediately available, and a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday morning.
Two Connecticut residents have also died this summer from vibriosis, the state Department of Public Health said Tuesday.
Last month, the department said that it had received reports of three cases since July 1 and that all three people had been hospitalized.
Two of the three cases were wound infections not associated with seafood, the health department said, and the third infection was of a Connecticut resident who consumed raw oysters not harvested from Long Island Sound at an out-of-state establishment.
All three victims were ages 60 to 80, and the two deaths occurred in July, the department said, adding that it is first time Connecticut has seen a Vibrio case in three years.
Connecticut is home to a thriving oyster industry, and it conducts regular tests for the bacteria. Vibrio vulnificus has never been found in state waters, the health department said, and most infections are linked to shellfish from much warmer waters where it can thrive.
The state Bureau of Aquaculture said it does not believe any of the infections are linked to Connecticut shellfish.
Since 2014, the state has also added requirements designed to cool oysters to the point where the bacteria cannot survive, the department said. In high-risk areas, harvested oysters are immediately placed in an ice slurry. In lower-risk areas, harvesters are required to refrigerate or ice all oysters within five hours of harvest.
Officials urge caution
Hochul urged New Yorkers on Wednesday to “stay vigilant and take responsible precautions to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vibriosis causes an estimated 80,000 illnesses — about 52,000 of which it estimates are the result of eating contaminated food, including oysters — and 100 deaths in the U.S. annually. Most infections occur from May to October, when water is warmer.
Most people with mild infections recover after about three days with no lasting effects, the CDC says. Symptoms can include diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting, fever, chills and ear infections. But serious infections can require intensive care or limb amputation, and about 1 in 5 of those patients die — sometimes within a day or two of illness, according to the CDC.
People with liver disease, cancer or weakened immune systems or those taking medicine to decrease stomach acid levels are particularly susceptible to vibriosis infections or complications, according to guidance from the governor’s office.
The likelihood of contracting vibriosis can be reduced by covering wounds, recent piercings or tattoos when they are exposed to warm seawater and avoiding eating oysters and other raw shellfish if you have a weakened immune system, information from the governor’s office said. People should also wear gloves when they handle raw shellfish and wash their hands afterward.
The Connecticut health department also recommends washing wounds with soap and water if they come into any contact with saltwater or raw seafood or its juices.
The New York state health commissioner, Dr. James McDonald, said in a statement shared by Hochul’s office that officials were further “reminding providers to be on the lookout for cases of vibriosis, which is not often the first diagnosis that comes to mind."
Research shows that vibriosis infections have been on the rise in the Eastern U.S. since the late 1990s and that it could continue to increase in the years to come because of climate change and warming waters.