Jeanette LeBlanc was visiting family in Louisiana when she met an untimely and unpleasant death. The Texas resident contracted vibrio, a flesh-eating bacteria, from eating raw oysters and died after three weeks of battling the condition.
LeBlanc went crabbing with friends and family, including her wife, Vicki Bergquist, and their friend Karen Bowers. They also picked up a sack of raw oysters at the local market, two dozen of which LeBlanc and Bowers shucked and ate that same day. Shortly thereafter, LeBlanc had a severe reaction.
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“About 36 hours later, she started having extreme respiratory distress, had a rash on her legs and everything,” Bergquist said to CBS News.
Bowers said it looked like LeBlanc was experiencing an allergic reaction, and within 48 hours of eating the oysters, the woman’s condition worsened considerably.
“It’s a. She had severe wounds on her legs from that bacteria,” Bergquist said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vibrio is a bacteria that naturally occurs in coastal waters where oysters live and is responsible for 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the U.S. every year. Most vibrio infections that come from oysters cause vomiting and diarrhoea, but as many as one in three people contract the deadly vibrio vulnificus strain that can result in bloodstream infections, severe blistering skin lesions and limb amputations.
“Oysters are filter feeders, so they pick up everything that’s in the water,” Bill Marler, a food poisoning attorney, said to BottomLine. “If there’s bacteria in the water it’ll get into their system, and if you eat it you could have trouble. I’ve seen a lot more of that over the last five years than I saw in the last 20 years. It’s simply not worth the risk.”
The reason for the higher frequency of vibrio in raw shellfish is due to warming waters, Business Insider says. Hotter global waters produce microbial growth, which ends up in oysters and other shellfish.
What adds to the problem is the fact that foods contaminated with vibrio look, smell and taste perfectly normal, which is why Health Canada says to cook shellfish thoroughly before eating and to refrigerate leftovers. They also suggest you avoid taking an antacid prior to eating oysters or other seafood as reduced stomach acid may create a hospitable environment for vibrio.
After their tragic loss, Bergquist and Bowers are working to raise awareness about vibrio and its potentially deadly consequences.
“She was bigger than life. She was a great person, laughed a lot, loved her family, loved her dad,” Bergquist said. “If we had known that the risk was so high, I think she would’ve stopped eating oysters.”