CHINATOWN — Lee Yuk Fun has not been able to wash her hands since November.
A painful skin infection she developed food shopping in a Sunset Park Chinatown fish market near her home has left her fingers red, swollen and useless.
“It feels like something is biting my skin,” Lee, 60, said through a translator. “I feel like I’m disabled.”
She is one of 66 people who have developed or are suspected of having contracted the rare skin infection M. marinum since the city discovered the start of an outbreak last summer, according to the Health Department.
In most cases, people develop the infection after handling live or raw seafood from Chinatown fish markets in Lower Manhattan, Flushing and Sunset Park. The source of the outbreak is still unknown, officials said
Lee doesn’t know where the bacteria came from, but said she regularly buys fish from two Chinatown markets near her home on Eighth Avenue — Fei Long market and HK market.
“I’ve been buying fish there for 24 years,” she said, adding that while she had never previously worn gloves to shop or prepare fish, sometimes she used a plastic bag while handling the fish at the markets.
"This has never happened."
She believes she contracted the bacteria from one of the markets some time before early December, when her left index finger began to swell and was painful to the touch and showed red bumps.
She said she had accidentally brushed her hand near a cactus shortly before the shopping trip, and had sliced her finger to see if one of the spines had lodged in her skin.
Lee reached out to hand surgeon Danny Fong, who treats many patients from the city’s Chinatown neighborhoods, and was diagnosed with M. marinum.
Fong put her on a regimen of antibiotics, but so far the bacteria has proven resistant to six different prescriptions, in part because Lee had a pre-existing hand condition and was already on antibiotics when she was infected, Fong said.
Usually, the infection is easily treatable with antibiotics, but Lee's symptoms continued to spread, leading to pus-filled swollen fingers, excruciating pain and curled fingers similar to arthritis.
Five months and three surgeries after noticing symptoms, the bacteria remains in her body, leading Fong to fear that she'll require even more surgeries in a bid to alleviate the pain.
Because the bacteria grows in cold temperatures, it usually targets extremities such as fingers and toes, Fong said.
When the infection spreads to the muscles and nerves it requires surgery. Several infected individuals, including Lee, have needed it, the doctor said.
“Her case has been particularly difficult,” he said.
Because of the treatment, Lee cannot get her hands wet. Every morning her husband washes her face and helps her shower, she said. She cannot use her hands and has stopped working as a home health aid in Sunset Park.
Fong has seen an unusually large number of M. marinum cases in the past year. He reported the outbreak to the city's health department and has since surveyed other Chinatown doctors to get a better idea of how many people have been infected.
“In my experience I see a case every year or two," Fong said, adding that he grew concerned when he treated between 15 and 20 patients since last August.
“I noticed the first one in August of last year, then again in September and more in November,” added Fong, who reported all his patients to the health department.
To date, there have been seven confirmed cases of the disease and 59 people are suspected of having it, according to the health department.
There have been no deaths or reported amputations, health officials said.
Anyone in the city handling live or raw fish and seafood should wear protective waterproof gloves — even if it wasn't at a Chinatown market, according to the health department.
It is safe to eat the contaminated seafood and the bacteria is not contagious between humans, officials said.
“There are no cases in the medical literature of this type of infection from eating raw fish,” said a DOH spokesman.
“For reasons that are not completely understood, the bacteria has a preference for infecting the extremities of the body, such as arms, hands, feet, or legs and only causes an infection when a person comes in direct contact with fish seafood or the water from a fish or seafood tank and they have a cut or injury on that extremity.”
Lee and her husband have taken precautions in the wake of her infection, steering clear of Chinatown fish markets altogether and warning friends who still go to protect themselves with gloves.
“Now we buy frozen fish,” she said.