usa: Seafood poisoning rises with warming -
- [EXCERPT: What Roa and the others suffered that
night last August was ciguatera poisoning, a
rarely fatal but growing menace from eating
exotic fish. All had bought portions of the same
barracuda from a local vendor. ... Experts
estimate that up to 50,000 people worldwide
suffer ciguatera poisoning each year, with more
than 90 percent of cases unreported. Scientists
say the risks are getting worse, because of
damage that pollution and global warming are
inflicting on the coral reefs where many fish
Seafood poisoning rises with warming
By MICHAEL CASEY, AP Environmental Writer
Bowls of piping hot barracuda soup were the
much-anticipated treat when the Roa family
gathered for a casual and relaxing Sunday meal.
Within hours, all six fell deathly ill. So did
two dozen others from the same neighborhood. Some
complained of body-wide numbness. Others had
weakness in their legs. Several couldn't speak or
even open their mouths.
"I was scared. I really thought I was going to
die," said Dabby Roa, 21, a student who suffered
numbness in his head, tingling in his hands and
had trouble breathing.
What Roa and the others suffered that night last
August was ciguatera poisoning, a rarely fatal
but growing menace from eating exotic fish. All
had bought portions of the same barracuda from a
Experts estimate that up to 50,000 people
worldwide suffer ciguatera poisoning each year,
with more than 90 percent of cases unreported.
Scientists say the risks are getting worse,
because of damage that pollution and global
warming are inflicting on the coral reefs where
many fish species feed.
Dozens of popular fish types, including grouper
and barracuda, live near reefs. They accumulate
the toxic chemical in their bodies from eating
smaller fish that graze on the poisonous algae.
When oceans are warmed by the greenhouse effect
and fouled by toxic runoff, coral reefs are
damaged and poison algae thrives, scientists say.
"Worldwide, we have a much bigger problem with
toxins from algae in seafood than we had 20 or 30
years ago," said Donald M. Anderson, director of
the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
"We have more toxins, more species of algae
producing the toxins and more areas affected
around the world," he said.
Although risk of ciguatera has soared recently,
the phenomenon is ancient. Fish poisoning shows
up in Homer's Odyssey. Alexander the Great
forbade his armies to eat fish for fear of being
stricken, according to University of Hawaii
professor Yoshitsugi Hokama.
Capt. James Cook and his crew probably suffered
ciguatera poisoning in 1774 after eating fish
near Vanuatu in the South Pacific, according to
crew journals and correspondence studied by Dr.
Michael Doherty of the Swedish Epilepsy Center in
Seattle, writing in the scientific review
Neurology. Cook recorded that they "were seized
with an extraordinary weakness in all our limbs
attended with a numbness or sensation like ...
that ... caused by exposing one's hands or feet
to a fire after having been pinched much by
Ciguatera has long been known in the South
Pacific, the Caribbean and warmer areas of the
Indian Ocean. Some South Pacific islanders use
dogs to test fish before they eat.
But in the past decade, it has spread through
Asia, Europe and the United States, where more
restaurants are serving reef fish, prized for
their fresh taste and exotic cachet.
In the United States, ciguatera poisonings are
most frequent in Florida, Texas and Hawaii, which
has seen a fivefold increase since the 1970s to
more than 250 a year.
Hong Kong, which imports much of its seafood,
went from fewer than 10 cases annually in the
1980s to a few hundred now.
Still, Hong Kong diners pay a premium for the
risky fish. Rare species like the Napoleon wrasse
fetch nearly $50 a pound. The fish are
increasingly shipped live from Southeast Asia and
as far away as the South Pacific, raising
concerns from the World Conservation Union that
many species, especially groupers, could be
fished out of existence.
Professor Yvonne Sadovy, of the University of
Hong Kong, predicted that high demand and
cash-hungry fishermen mean that "ciguatoxic fish
entering markets around the world is going to
Should global warming and pollution worsen and
boost ciguatera poisonings, as most experts
predict, health officials will face a daunting
Currently, there is no reliable way to detect
whether a fish has ciguatera. The molecule is
extremely complex and differs markedly from
region to region.
There also is no antidote.
Furthermore, doctors are often ill-equipped to
diagnose ciguatera, which has a range of symptoms
and is sometimes misdiagnosed as chronic fatigue
syndrome or other maladies.
Those challenges faced Dr. Edgar Portigo at
Doctors General Hospital in Iloilo, about 265
miles southeast of Manila, when the Roa family
and others arrived. The emergency room was
filling with patients yelping in pain, vomiting,
or, in the case of Dabby Roa, so paralyzed that
he had to be carried in by a security guard.
"Normally, you have one or two emergency cases.
Here we had 30 plus all at once," from ages 4 to
65, Portigo said.
At first, Portigo surmised the patients had heavy
metal poisoning. But when he learned of the
common thread - the barracuda dinners - he sent a
sample of the fish to Manila for testing. It came
back positive for ciguatera.
Portigo gave his patients intravenous drips and a
diuretic to relieve their suffering. Most like
Roa were released from the hospital in a week, he
said, and fully recovered.
"Although this is quite rare, it can happen
anytime," said Portigo, noting this was the first
ciguatera outbreak in the city.
A relatively quick recovery is the norm, but some have lingering symptoms.
Dennis McGillicuddy, a 65-year-old retired cable
television company owner from Sarasota, Fla.,
fell sick a few hours after eating a mutton
snapper he caught off the coast of Bermuda in
2000. Within hours, his vomiting and diarrhea
were so severe that he became delirious and was
"reduced to crawling," he recalled.
The digestive symptoms lasted two weeks. After
that, McGillicuddy became so sensitive to
temperature extremes that it was hard to take a
shower. Numbness in his extremities lasted for
almost a year.
"I've never had anything like this," said
McGillicuddy, who still occasionally feels
tingling in his left arm. "You feel terrible all
over your body."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and others
who monitor ciguatera say they are hampered by
the lack of a reliable test. Bans on certain fish
or "hot spots" can help, but they often are
"It's very hard to manage," said professor
Richard Lewis, of the University of Queensland in
Australia, who has studied ciguatera. "Unless you
don't eat the fish, you have a risk of getting
Poorer countries often lack even rudimentary
measures to protect consumers. Those precautions
that do exist are undermined by government
corruption or lack of enforcement.
Hong Kong has refused to enact mandatory measures
to prevent ciguatera despite increased outbreaks.
It argues that educating consumers and traders is
the answer, rejecting calls to crack down on
traders or ban fish from suspect areas.
"Given the fact we eat so much seafood in Hong
Kong, this should be one of the priorities in
protecting the population," Sadovy said. "I just
hope we don't have to wait for someone to die
before something is done."
In Iloilo, fear has done what the Philippine
government has not. Consumers stopped buying
barracuda after the ciguatera outbreak. Vendors
have switched to less risky varieties.
Associated Press writer Dikky Sinn in Hong Kong contributed to this report.
On the Net:
The World Conservation Union: http://www.iucn.org/
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/mow/chap36.html
The Harmful Algae Page: http://www.whoi.edu/redtide/
Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press.