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State health officials investigating death possibly linked to ocean bacteria

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The Hawaii Department of Health says it is investigating its second death linked to vibriosis, an infection cause by bacteria found in the ocean.

Dr. Sarah Park is a state epidemiologist, she said there is a reason why vibrio can thrive in the islands. 

"This bacteria can be found, all throughout our water, it loves salt water, it loves, warm salt water, the warmer, the better," said Dr. Park.    

Dr. Park said vibrio can be transmitted two ways. She said about one third of Hawaii's cases are transmitted through eating infected food, like under cooked shrimp, clams, or oysters.

"You're probably going to get a bad bout of diarrhea, for several days, and wish you hadn't done that, and then you'll get better," said Dr. Park.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), other symptoms of food-borne vibrio exposure include abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills. 

Dr. Park said in Hawaii the more common way to get infected with vibriosis, is getting exposed to contaminated water, when you have an open wound. This type of exposure typically causes a skin infection. 

"If you get a skin infection, it may fester you, you might need an antibiotic, you might not, and it will resolve after several days, maybe a week or so," explained Dr. Park.   

Experts say deaths are rare but they are possible.  

"What killed my brother were bacteria that were found in waters right there in that harbor," said Leonard Johnson, who lost his brother Oliver Johnson to vibriosis in 2006.  

Oliver Johnson was exposed to vibrio after getting into a fight and falling into the Ala Wai canal. He suffered an adverse reaction due to a weakened liver. 

Experts say if you have a liver condition, your risk of death goes up about 50%, but anyone who's exposed to the bacteria can get sick quickly. 

"Once you've been exposed and it sets up shop to cause infection, you can be sick within a day, couple days or so," said Dr. Park.

State records show there were 24 cases of vibriosis in 2016, Dr. Park said one person died that year. In 2015, records show there were 42 cases in vibriosis in Hawaii, but Dr. Park said there were no deaths that year. 

State health officials are still figuring out if 2017's second possible vibriosis death is linked to food or water exposure. 

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