2010 was one of the deadliest years ever recorded for consuming raw Gulf of Mexico oysters due to steeply elevated levels of the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria that occurred in the months during and after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The number of illnesses and deaths traced to the consumption of raw oysters in 2010 was especially alarming, given that Gulf oyster harvests dropped by 40 percent that year.
A new analysis of scientific reports conducted by the Mobile Press-Register found that Vibrio vulnificus, a waterborne bacteria related to cholera, was hundreds of times more abundant in the Gulf of Mexico amid the massive 2010 oil spill than in previous years. The bacteria can be found in oysters and may infect those who eat the shellfish raw. Cooked oysters containing the bacteria are safe to eat.
According to the Press-Register, Auburn University researcher Cova Arias “measured 8,300 vibrio bacteria per milliliter of seawater in Gulf Shores in October 2010. Nearly all of the levels in previous federal studies examined by the newspaper were below 100 bacteria per milliliter.” The newspaper shared its findings with U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) officials, who agreed the findings.
“A bad vibrio year could be attributed to the massive amount of carbon injected into the region about 2½ years ago,” George Crozier, retired director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, in Alabama, told the Press-Register, referring to BP’s oil spill.
Thirty-eight people were sickened after eating raw oysters in 2010 despite the reduced harvest. Sixteen of those sickened ultimately died from their illnesses. The bacteria can also be found in fish and other sea creatures that typically aren’t consumed raw.
Vibrio vulnificus normally kills about 10 to 20 people per year. Gulf oysters are blamed for nearly all of the cases. The number of cases dropped significantly in 2011. The Press-Register cited federal sources showing there were 27 known cases and with 14 deaths last year.
The bacteria occurs in the Gulf during the warmer months, and just about every case of illness tied to the bacteria occurred between April and September. “In the winter months, Gulf oysters are essentially free of the bacteria, leading to the old saw about only consuming oysters in months that have an ‘R’ in them,” the Press-Register reported.