Virginia suffers first Vibrio parahaemolyticus outbreak from Fishermen's Island oysters

(seafood.com) Virginia is coping with its first run-in with a phrase no one in public health or the seafood business ever wants to hear: oyster disease outbreak.

Three people became sick recently after eating raw oysters collected from the same private grounds off Fisherman Island on Virginia's Eastern Shore. They ate the oysters at restaurants in Massachusetts and Maryland, victims of a pathogen that grows naturally in warm waters known as Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

It is the less potent of two Vibrio strains -- the tougher kind can kill humans -- and typically hits unlucky consumers with vomiting, diarrhea and other stomach ailments. In one of the three reported cases, the person was ill for 10 days, said Keith Skiles, an oyster sanitation specialist with the Virginia Department of Health.

Skiles said Virginia has never experienced "an outbreak" of this kind before, defined by national rules as more than two cases of Vibrio stemming from the same waters.

"We hope it never gets us again," Skiles said Monday, three days after the health department announced it was closing down the Fisherman Island waters for the next year. A news release issued late Friday did not mention the word "outbreak," saying instead the closure was part of an "emergency."

The incident opens the door to renewed debate about allowing oysters to be harvested in warm summer months.

On public grounds, oystering is limited to the fall and winter, when Vibrio and other potentially dangerous pathogens are not active. But the state grants oyster farmers the right to harvest from their private beds any time they want to -- as long as they take precautions against contaminants that might be present.

The word "outbreak" is one that states and seafood merchants work overtime to avoid, knowing how it quickly can sink reputations and kill consumer demand.

The Virginia Marine Products Board, which markets state seafood, said it was unaware Monday of the Fisherman Island outbreak but would seek information right away. It said it had not received any calls from other businesses in other states.

Several seafood buyers contacted Monday said they, too, had not heard of the incident but expressed concern that word would spread quickly.

The closed waters around Fisherman Island affect only oysters and clams, not fish. It is possible the area could be reopened sooner than a year, Skiles said, depending on what water quality samples showed.


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