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Study Finds New Bacterial Strain Contaminated Atlantic Oysters And Shellfish

Update Date: Feb 10, 2017 09:22 AM EST

Scientists discovered a clue as to why seafood lovers are getting sick from eating shellfish. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have found a new strain of bacteria in oysters along the Atlantic Coast.

Vibrio Parahaemolyticus contamination in shellfish has been found to be the cause of diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain. It is very rare for people to die from contracting lethal septicemia.

Komo News reported, the new strain, ST631, was discovered by Cheryl Whistler and her colleagues from the University of New Hampshire's Northeast Center for Vibrio Disease and Ecology. The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology. One strain of the bacteria was previously blamed for food poisoning which is on the rise in New England and has been responsible for almost 45,000 cases in the US each year.

The new strain is endemic to the region and has similar virulent genes to ST36, the strain blamed for infections. It is unclear how ST631 has evolved to become so dangerous.

"It wasn't understood that there was a strain that lived in the Atlantic already that was causing increasing infections," said Whistler. It wasn't clear if every person was getting sick by a different strain. Are there a hundred different strains making people sick or just a couple making people sick?"

Whistler collaborated with the federal Food and Drug Administration and shellfish management agencies in five states on the study to discover the new strain. Climate change helped spread the pathogens like Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

According to, public health officials are hoping the discovery will give agencies along the Atlantic Coast and in Canada the data needed to develop tools to reduce food poisoning from the pathogen.

Whistler and UNH colleague Stephen Jones have developed a model that can estimate the likelihood the bacteria is present in coastal New Hampshire oysters. Knowing that ST36 or ST631 caused 80 percent of all reported illnesses, public health officials target environment surveillance efforts on the strains. Focus is now on adjusting control measures on how common aquaculture practices affect the levels of this pathogen in shellfish.

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