The last time that my mother ate crab meat, it nearly killed her.
I’m not being melodramatic. Earlier this year, she ate a few bites of a traditional Korean dish, gejang, which is made with raw crab meat. That’s all it took. The crab contained Vibrio, also known as “flesh-eating bacteria.” She was hospitalized for more than three weeks and will likely be in a long-term care facility for months. Doctors are trying hard to save her fingertips and toes.
Here’s what she wants others to know: Vibrio can affect anyone at any time. The best way to protect yourself from it is to stop eating sea animals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year in the United States, 80,000 people become ill—and 100 die—after becoming infected with this type of bacteria. That may not sound like a lot of people—until it’s your own loved one who is suffering. It’s possible to get a Vibrio infection if you have a cut or an open sore that’s exposed to brackish or salt water, but most people develop vibriosis after eating raw or undercooked shellfish.
My family’s nightmare began in September. My mom had purchased some crab meat at an Asian market that she frequently shops at in Colorado. A day after she ate the fateful gejang, she began to develop an itchy rash. That led to large bloody blisters and lesions. The infection entered her bloodstream, and she developed sepsis. One of her lungs collapsed, and she went into cardiac arrest. She has wounds all over her body, and she’s had surgery twice so far to clean out the infected tissue. She’ll likely need multiple plastic surgery procedures in the future to reconstruct the damaged tissue.
Doctors warn that people with a compromised immune system are the most likely to develop vibriosis, and that was true of my mom, who has stage-five chronic kidney failure. But it’s not always the case. Perfectly healthy people can come into contact with the bacteria and suffer from the effects of it, too. One of the nurses at the hospital told us that a doctor there, who was very healthy, got it on his hands and developed sepsis.
A study published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that warmer ocean temperatures, caused by climate change, are fueling the growth of Vibrio and other dangerous bacteria. So we could see even more vibriosis cases in the future.
Understandably, my mom is now terrified to eat anything that comes from an animal. Vibrio is far from the only danger. Numerous studies have found high levels of mercury and other toxic chemicals (including DDT, PCBs, and dioxin, which have been linked to cancer, nervous system disorders, and fetal damage) in fish flesh. Other types of animal flesh can be contaminated with salmonella, campylobacter, or deadly E. coli bacteria.
I went vegan eight years ago because I know that fish and other animals are thinking, feeling beings who have the same desire to live that humans do. Now, my mom has sworn off meat and dairy “products” forever and will be urging others to do the same. As my family has learned, it’s not just the kindest choice, it’s also the best way to safeguard your health.
For help getting started, check out our Guide to Going Vegan.