A 40-year-old woman in California recently developed a bacterial infection and had to have all of her limbs amputated after cooking fish she reportedly bought from a San Jose market. The type of infection that caused her illness could become more common as climate change worsens, experts say.
Laura Barajas cooked and ate the fish and was subsequently hospitalised for over a month, according to a GoFundMe page organised by Anna Messina, a family friend. Then, on 13 September, doctors had to remove both arms and legs to save her life.
The type of fish Barajas purchased was tilapia, according to reporting from WHNT News 19, and she then started experiencing symptoms of a Vibrio vulnificus infection.
People can develop Vibrio infections after eating raw or undercooked seafood or oysters, or through an open wound, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On 1 September, the agency released a health advisory warning the public about Vibrio infections, which are associated with warm coastal waters. Research published in March in the journal Scientific Reports suggested we may see rising cases of this deadly infection in the coming years due to global warming.
Vibrio vulnificus infections are commonly fatal: Around 20 per cent of people who develop them die, sometimes within two days of becoming ill. Patients with the infection sometimes need intensive care and amputations, as Bjarajas did. In addition to amputations, they may also need to have dead tissue removed.
Vibrio infections can cause debilitating symptoms such as stomach cramping, watery diarrhoea, nausea, fever, vomiting, chills, low blood pressure, and blistering skin lesions. If a wound has been infected with the bacteria, symptoms may also include redness, swelling, pain, warmth, discolouration, and discharge.
The infection can be diagnosed if Vibrio bacteria are found in a blood or stool sample from someone who is ill, or if they are found in the patient’s wound.
To avoid exposure to Vibrio bacteria the CDC recommends washing your hands with water and soap after handling raw shellfish and cooking oysters and other shellfish before eating them. Oysters should be boiled for at least three minutes; fried in oil for at least three minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit; broiled three inches from a heat source for three minutes; or baked at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes. Shellfish should be boiled until the shells have opened, then boiled for an additional three to five minutes, or put in a steamer (after the water is already steaming) and cooked for an additional four to nine minutes, per the CDC.
While Vibrio infections can affect anyone, certain people are more likely to develop severe complications from them, per the CDC. Among these are people with liver disease, cancer, HIV, diabetes, or thalassemia; people who take medications that make it harder for the body to fight germs; people who take medication to decrease stomach acid; and people who have recently had stomach surgery. If you are high risk, you can reduce your chances of getting infected by staying out of water if you have an open wound and thoroughly cleaning wounds if they’ve come into contact with raw seafood, saltwater, or brackish water.
Most cases of the infection are reported during outbreaks, per the CDC, which notes there have been local outbreaks as well as larger, multi-state outbreaks.
Messina described Barajas as a “40-year-old mother to a wonderful six-year-old boy” and said that her family is in need of financial support due to her medical bills. Barajas’ partner, Jose Valdez, has been “right by her side, providing unwavering support”, Messina wrote. “The family is in desperate need of our help. While Jose has health benefits through his work, it remains uncertain whether they will cover Laura, his partner of eight years. Jose’s paid time off…has been exhausted, and the Family Disability program provides only 60% of his normal income.”
In addition to these expenses, Barajas’ family will have to make home modifications, Messina wrote: “The mounting hospital bills are overwhelming, and Laura’s physical condition will necessitate significant changes to their lives as they adapt to her new circumstances.”
Messina added that Barajas’ infection had taken a toll on her family. “We kindly request that you find it in your hearts to support this beautiful family during this incredibly challenging time,” she said. “What has happened to them could happen to any of us, and together, we can make a meaningful difference.”