By Alex Robinson
An outbreak of a rare disease has infected at least 41 people citywide, including three from Queens, whose skin came into contact with live or raw fish that was purchased at seafood markets in the city’s Chinatowns.
The city Department of Health issued a warning last week about the bacteria, Mycobacterium marinum, which enters the body through cuts or scrapes when seafood is handled.
“It’s a bacteria found around fish or other aquatic animals and is usually an opportunistic infection,” said Dr. Danny Fong, a Manhattan hand surgeon who first alerted the city to the outbreak. “When people are cleaning fish or they buy fish from the market and get pierced by bones, the spine of the fish or lobster bones, it allows for the bacteria to get in.”
Fong first realized the problem could be serious when he started finding multiple cases of the infection since August. He said he usually only finds one case every year or two.
“I started keeping lists when I saw too many cases,” he said. “We started seeing more and more of these cases.”
The infection usually starts with an abscess or a boil on a hand or limb and slowly spreads. It can be treated with antibiotics, but if left too long it can damage muscle tissue and tendons and can require surgery, Fong said.
Fong found 15 people with the infection since August and reported his findings to the DOH, which then discovered another 26 cases in the last few weeks.
Three of the confirmed cases were in Queens, DOH officials said.
Dr. Sherry Li, a dermatologist whose practice is in Flushing, said she found two of the cases.
Her patients were both preparing fish to eat when they got cut.
The DOH has not been able to determine why the infection has only affected people who bought seafood from Chinese markets.
“If you have a lot of fish tanks getting infected and if they don’t clean the fish tank properly, it will spread quickly,” Li said.
Employees at Lida Seafood, a fish market in Flushing, said news of the outbreak has not affected their sales but has changed the way they handle fish.
“After I read the news, I said to the workers who handle the fish that they must wear gloves,” said Kathleen Chen, who works as a bookkeeper for the fish market.
Chen said she thought the outbreak could be connected to the way the Chinese prepare seafood.
“Chinese people love to eat live fish, so they’re sold in live waters,” she said.
A DOH spokesman said the agency is currently investigating to determine whether specific markets are at risk or if a specific seafood has caused the outbreak.
Outbreaks of the infection are extremely rare and there has never been one in New York City before, the spokesman said.
DOH officials are recommending people use protective gloves while handling or preparing live or raw seafood. There has been no evidence that eating the bacteria will cause infection, DOH officials said.
Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4566.