At least three people have died since 1998 after contracting a bacterial disease linked to uncooked seafood and shellfish, and reflecting upon recent findings, doctors are warning that unless people become more aware of it, Vibrio vulnificus could start to become a health threat.

The bacteria spawns in warm coastal waters, particularly between May and October, and if contracted, the global mortality rate is recognised as one in two people. It can be caught either by consumption or close contact with a wound, the bacteria multiplying rapidly if the fish is not stored or handled correctly before it is eaten.

Dr Mamie Hui, from the Chinese University's department of microbiology, explained that the effects of the disease were "deadly, extensive and rapid," with fever, nausea, severe muscle pain and abscesses that could sometimes lead to patients requiring amputation.

The problem is that because the disease is not classed as "notifiable", many cases are not reported to the Chinese Department of Health, and therefore the statistics on the spread and threat of the disease are largely speculative.

A team of doctors at the Princess Margaret Hospital is becoming increasingly worried, however. "The preference for fresh seafood increases the risk of infections from direct contact with contaminated fish," explained Dr Andrew Wong Tin-yau, which is increasing potential exposure to the disease.

High-risk groups, including those suffering from diabetes, liver cirrhosis or hepatitis B/C, are 80 times more likely to contract the disease than a healthy person and 200 times more likely to die from it, and the doctors are urging particular caution when eating seafood for these groups. Those with underlying health problems should never consume raw animal protein products.

The new findings are to be presented today (12 December) at the 7th Western Pacific Congress of Chemotherapy and Infectious Diseases, in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, and it is hoped that heightened awareness of the disease among people such as fish vendors, chefs and housewives will lead to more efficient prevention.