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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, July 1, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesSevere Case of Fish Poisoning Has Doctors Stumped

Severe Case of Fish Poisoning Has Doctors Stumped

A barracuda caught on the south side of St. Thomas is the cause of an isolated but severe case of ciguatera fish poisoning currently being treated at Schneider Regional Medical Center.
Not much is currently known about the victim, except that she has school-aged children. However, doctors said recently that she was put on a respirator when she came into the emergency room, was admitted to the hospital the same night and has shown minimal signs of improvement. Her husband, who was also struck with fish poisoning, didn’t appear to exhibit such severe symptoms.
The surprise, doctors said, was that the woman only ate a small piece of the fish — not usually enough to cause such a bad reaction.
"It’s so rare, to get such a serious illness like this, that it really came as a surprise to the physicians that she got so sick from such a small amount," said Dr. Clayton Wheatley, director of the hospital’s emergency room. "When she came to the ER, initially it was thought to be a routine case, of which we get about three to five cases a week."
Wheatley said the incident should alert residents to the dangers of ciguatera and make them more aware of what kinds of fish they eat. Ciguatera is caused by eating fish that contain toxins produced by the microalgae Gambierdiscus toxicus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Experts have said ciguatera is the most frequently reported marine toxin disease in the world, whose symptoms can disappear after a few days or weeks only to reappear a few months or a year down the road.
"The problem comes in because a lot of people eat barracuda here, and that’s because they’re accustomed to eating it in other Caribbean islands, where it’s not poisonous," he explained. "It’s interesting, because they just don’t have fish poisoning in places like St. Vincent and Dominica, and that’s because the organism that causes the illness doesn’t occur there."
No one can really say why that is — what makes one island climate more prone to generating the ciguatera bacteria than another, he added. Wheatley was recently brought on to help conduct a groundbreaking three-year research study headed by a research team from the mainland, whose ultimate goal is finding a way of preventing fish poisoning in humans.
"Why this is such a localized illness, we can’t really say at this point," Wheatley said recently. "It’s a puzzle — I mean, the environments are the same, the climates are the same, so there’s not really a difference. But that’s what we’re trying to figure out."
In the meantime, residents are urged to stay away from certain types of fish, such as amber jacks, large groupers and large snappers, Wheatley said.
"People think they can tell the fish is safe by where it’s caught, but that’s just not reliable," Wheatley said. "Because really, you won’t see a fisherman at the side of the road selling barracuda — these things happen when people go out and catch the fish and eat it by themselves without knowing the dangers."
"It’s really best to avoid them if you don’t want to take a chance," Wheatley said.

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A barracuda caught on the south side of St. Thomas is the cause of an isolated but severe case of ciguatera fish poisoning currently being treated at Schneider Regional Medical Center.
Not much is currently known about the victim, except that she has school-aged children. However, doctors said recently that she was put on a respirator when she came into the emergency room, was admitted to the hospital the same night and has shown minimal signs of improvement. Her husband, who was also struck with fish poisoning, didn't appear to exhibit such severe symptoms.
The surprise, doctors said, was that the woman only ate a small piece of the fish -- not usually enough to cause such a bad reaction.
"It's so rare, to get such a serious illness like this, that it really came as a surprise to the physicians that she got so sick from such a small amount," said Dr. Clayton Wheatley, director of the hospital's emergency room. "When she came to the ER, initially it was thought to be a routine case, of which we get about three to five cases a week."
Wheatley said the incident should alert residents to the dangers of ciguatera and make them more aware of what kinds of fish they eat. Ciguatera is caused by eating fish that contain toxins produced by the microalgae Gambierdiscus toxicus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Experts have said ciguatera is the most frequently reported marine toxin disease in the world, whose symptoms can disappear after a few days or weeks only to reappear a few months or a year down the road.
"The problem comes in because a lot of people eat barracuda here, and that's because they're accustomed to eating it in other Caribbean islands, where it's not poisonous," he explained. "It's interesting, because they just don't have fish poisoning in places like St. Vincent and Dominica, and that's because the organism that causes the illness doesn't occur there."
No one can really say why that is -- what makes one island climate more prone to generating the ciguatera bacteria than another, he added. Wheatley was recently brought on to help conduct a groundbreaking three-year research study headed by a research team from the mainland, whose ultimate goal is finding a way of preventing fish poisoning in humans.
"Why this is such a localized illness, we can't really say at this point," Wheatley said recently. "It's a puzzle -- I mean, the environments are the same, the climates are the same, so there's not really a difference. But that's what we're trying to figure out."
In the meantime, residents are urged to stay away from certain types of fish, such as amber jacks, large groupers and large snappers, Wheatley said.
"People think they can tell the fish is safe by where it's caught, but that's just not reliable," Wheatley said. "Because really, you won't see a fisherman at the side of the road selling barracuda -- these things happen when people go out and catch the fish and eat it by themselves without knowing the dangers."
"It's really best to avoid them if you don't want to take a chance," Wheatley said.