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Death Linked to Raw Oysters Prompts Health Warning

Hazard: Man is the second to die since May from a bacterium that can be life-threatening to those with immune system disorders.


Los Angeles County health officials are warning people with certain chronic diseases to avoid eating raw oysters after a 44-year-old man died of a rare bacterial infection last week.

The Latino man's death is the second fatality in the county since May that was caused by infection with Vibrio vulnificus, typically acquired from eating raw seafood, especially oysters, from the Gulf of Mexico.

Health officials said the man became ill five days after eating two raw oysters at a neighbor's home. He was treated July 11 at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where he died the following day.

The county Department of Health Services is investigating the 99 Ranch Market on Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys, where the neighbor allegedly purchased the seafood.

Since 1991, California law has required facilities selling Gulf Coast oysters to post signs in both Spanish and English, warning customers of the potential risks of raw oysters, county health officials said.

The oysters are less expensive than other types.

The store did not have the correct wording on the signs and did not post warnings in Spanish, said Kenneth Marks of the county environmental health division. Officials also are probing whether the store abided by rules that it identify the source of the oysters in a tag, Marks said.

A manager at the store declined to comment.

The V. vulnificus bacterium can be life-threatening to people with AIDS, hepatitis, cancer, cirrhosis, diabetes and other diseases that affect the immune system.

Both men who died this year were Latino and had existing liver problems.

"The sad thing is most people don't know they're at risk," said Dr. Laurene Mascola, chief of the acute communicable disease unit in the county health department. "They think they can smell, taste or see something is wrong with the oyster. Or they don't realize they have diabetes or liver problems."

V. vulnificus is naturally present in warm marine waters, and its numbers peak in the summer.

Though eating raw shellfish is the most common way to become infected, people with open wounds can also be exposed to the bacterium through direct contact with seawater.

In healthy people, the infection can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting.

But for those with chronic diseases, the bacteria can infect the bloodstream and cause fever, chills, decreased blood pressure and blistering skin lesions.

Symptoms typically start within 24 hours of eating shellfish. Death can occur within two to three days.

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