18 March, 2014 3:37PM AEST
Call for ciguatera awareness after 17 cases in Townsville
By Nathalie Fernbach with Paula Tapiolas
The partner of a woman who developed ciguatera poisoning after eating fish and chips is calling for greater awareness of the toxin.
Seventeen people presented at the Townsville Hospital over the weekend with ciguatera poisoning.
Brett McGuire says his family all ate fish and chips on Saturday night, shortly afterward his wife Sarah developed diarrhoea, tingling around her mouth, numbness in her hands and feet, uncontrollable itching and severe pain.
“Growing up in north Queensland I had known of (ciguatera) but I think what we found was that there is really not much awareness of it and what it actually is,” he said.
Diagnosing ciguatera poisoning
Mr McGuire says hospital staff were caring but many had not dealt with ciguatera poisoning before.
“It was quite surprising and a bit disheartening how much the health professionals themselves didn’t know much about it either so it made it hard for them to diagnose and to treat,” he said.
The ciguatera toxin comes from an algae that small reef fish consume, larger predatory fish can build up high doses of the toxin from eating smaller reef fish.
Mr McGuire would like to see more public information about ciguatera poisoning made available and upper limits on fish size introduced for some species.
“Recreational fishermen know that large fish carry bad things so they catch and release, whereas I suppose the commercial fishermen they catch a big fish they say ‘oh well I can cut this large mackerel up into 20 different fillets and sell it on,'” he said.
17 cases very unusual
Director of emergency at the Townsville Hospital Doctor Niall Small says it is not unusual to see ciguatera cases but it is rare to have so many cases at once.
“One of the big problems is that we really don’t understand what causes the symptoms, we know about the toxin but we don’t know what causes the symptoms so we are slightly limited in what treatment we can use,” he said.
Dr Small says the best way to avoid ciguatera is to avoid large predatory fish like mackerel and pelagics and find out what fish you are buying when you eat out.
“Don’t buy mixed reef fillets because there is a risk that the wrong kind of fish has been chopped up and added to the mixed reef fillets,” he said.
Ciguatera on the rise
Ciguatera researcher Doctor Mark Skinner says the algae that causes ciguatera is becoming more dominant in the ecosystem.
Dr Skinner advises people not to eat fish over 2kgs in weight and to avoid the meat around the head and intestines.
He says the poisoning can be debilitating for weeks or months and if people consume the toxin again they are likely to have worse symptoms the second time.
“We know that the toxin is built up in the fatty tissues of fish so quite obviously there is no reason for it not to build up in the fatty tissues of mammals and so it can take quite some time to get out of the system,” he said.