Forty-year-old Darrell Dishon wasn’t an oyster fan. Before June of 2009, he’d never even tried one. So when his wife Nicole proposed splitting a dozen raw shellfish at a restaurant in Panama City, Fla., where the two were vacationing, he was leery.
Nicole remembers eating 10. She says Darrell ate two.
A day later, Dishon -- a quality inspector at a heavy machinery plant outside Cincinnati -- started vomiting and getting diarrhea. He got worse over the next few hours. Nicole urged him to go to the hospital. After confirming that Dishon had eaten raw oysters and conducting lab tests, the doctors delivered the awful news that he had contracted a form of vibriosis, one of the most deadly foodborne illnesses in the world.
Over the following weeks, Darrell's health continued to decline. He developed life-threatening septicemia. His doctors amputated both his legs above the knee in an effort to stop the spread of the bacteria.
The amputation helped. By the end of August, Darrell's health had improved enough for him to be transferred from Florida to another hospital in Alabama. He stayed there a month, then went back home to Ohio, where he started physical therapy and rehab to adjust to life in a wheelchair.
But just four months later, Dishon’s legs became infected again. His kidneys and liver started to fail. Facing a lifetime of dialysis, he and Nicole decided not to pursue further treatment.
“He was just tired of being in the hospital, being in pain,” Nicole Dishon told The Huffington Post. "We just made the decision to be at home and give him hospice care."
In December, Darrell Dishon became one of the approximately 15 people each year who succumb to vibriosis after eating raw oysters. Vibriosis is an incredibly rare disease -- but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that it’s getting more common.
“While all the other pathogens have shown a nice decline, the vibrios are about twice what it was since 1998. In a little over a decade, incidence has doubled. They’re still relatively small numbers -- but it's a very striking increase,” leading vibrio researcher Glenn Morris of the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute told The Huffington Post.
Vibrio thrive in warm water. (That’s why the majority of cases happen in the summer, and why vibriosis is more closely associated with oysters from the Gulf of Mexico than from, say, the Pacific Northwest.) One widely publicized study published in July 2012 indicated that a 1-degree increase in the temperature of a body of water triples its vibrio population. For that reason, many scientists believe that climate change has contributed to the recent rise in vibriosis, and that it could make vibrio bacteria much more prevalent in coming years.
“Vibrios are in many ways the poster children for global warming, because they are so temperature sensitive and the temperature breakpoint for them is right around the point that we're seeing temperature increases,” Morris explained.
The disease has already cropped up in places it had never been seen before: Israel, the Baltic Sea, even Alaska. Yet vibrio vulnificus, the form of vibrio bacteria that’s considered the most dangerous and the one that killed Dishon, remains most closely associated with oysters from the Gulf of Mexico. With only about 30 total cases in the United States a year, it's exceptionally rare. Your chances of finding a valuable pearl in one of the 2.5 billion oysters Americans eat a year are about 100 times greater than your chances of contracting vibrio vulnificus.
Yet when it strikes, it strikes hard. It kills about half the people who get it, a rate comparable, among foodborne illnesses, only to the dreaded listeria monocytogenes. And many of these deaths are unusually painful.
“It’s a pretty gruesome way to die. It’s about as bad as it gets,” said personal injury lawyer Elliott Olsen, who counts Dishon among several other clients who’ve approached him about vibriosis. He described Dishon’s death as the most brutal he’s seen in many years litigating on behalf of foodborne-illness victims.
Most of the people who get sick from vulnificus have either liver failure or a compromised immune system. For that reason, some health advocates suggest that people with such conditions avoid raw oysters altogether.
But Dishon didn’t have either of these, though he was diabetic. And some people who get sick from vibrio vulnificus have either no pre-existing condition or a mild one.
Vincent Rhodes, 57, is one of the latter. When he visited Florida with his wife in July 2012, he was already suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, but he was relatively asymptomatic. None of his doctors had ever told him to avoid raw oysters because of his condition.
Just hours after Rhodes ate a dozen oysters at a beachside restaurant south of Tampa, Fla., he fell seriously ill. His wife, Diana, insisted he go to the hospital. On the way there, he recalls, Diana told him his skin “looked completely gray.” Rhodes’ health worsened in the hospital, as Dishon’s had. He was in the Intensive Care Unit for three days. He ended up staying in the hospital for about a week before going home to Colorado.
Yet the punishing effects of the vibriosis lingered on. Between the initial illness and the lingering gastrointestinal problems, Rhodes lost a total of 40 pounds. In September, he had to get surgery to treat a hernia he developed because of violent vomiting while in the ICU. The stress of the disease also accelerated his liver failure, forcing him to get a transplant in late November. The surgery was arduous, but he says he feels much better than he did at the height of his vibriosis last summer.
“I'd rather have 20 more liver transplants than have vibrio again -- that’s how bad I felt,” Rhodes told The Huffington Post.
Stories like Rhodes’ and Dishon’s have prompted the federal government to consider taking action against Gulf oysters on numerous occasions. In November of 2009, the FDA threatened to ban the sale of the Gulf oysters in the summer. Federal regulators have also floated the idea of requiring Gulf oysters (or at least those harvested at the height of summer) to undergo processing to reduce the risk of vibrio before being served to customers. Treatments such as pasteurization, irradiation and pressurization can significantly reduce the risk of vibriosis posed by oysters. (In California, rates of the disease dropped to virtually zero after the state started requiring all Gulf oysters to be treated before being served.)
But Al Sunseri, the owner of P&J Oyster Company in New Orleans, says that such treatments also significantly compromise the quality of raw oysters.
“When they open a raw oyster right in front of you, that critter is still living. There’s no fresher food that you’re going to eat than that,” he said. “All these treatments kill them. They pick up tastes of muck that’s in the shell, depending on how long they’re dead.”
He added that his family company has served “billions, maybe trillions” of oysters over the course of its 137-year history, but that it has never been definitively linked with any vibriosis outbreak. He chalked that streak up to smart handling practices and ample training for restaurant workers who serve their oysters. But more generally, Sunseri believes that the risk of vibriosis from oysters has been far overblown by media coverage and federal regulators.
“The risk per serving is almost nil when you compare it to other foods,” Sunseri argued. “But when you look at the regulatory requirements, what we have to jump through in comparison to the other foods, it’s over the top. There’s no food regulated as much as molluscan shellfish.”
Regulating the Gulf oyster industry further, or shutting it down for the summer, could have serious economic consequences for the region. The $500 million industry employs 3,500 people a year.
Reflecting on her husband's death, Nicole Dishon emphasizes that she doesn’t want thousands of people to lose their jobs. But she also says she wants to prevent anyone from suffering like Darrell had.
“All I would like to see happen,” she says, “is that it doesn't happen to someone else. Because it devastates people.”