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Study Finds Ciguatera Poisoning Far More Common Than Believed

Elias Levy
American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene

Ciguatera poisoning is far more common in Florida, especially South Florida, than previously believed based on public health records, according to a new study from the University of Florida and the state Department of Health.

The study, published online Monday at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, found that ciguatera poisoning is 28 times more common than public health records indicate. The state statistics showed a frequency of 0.2 cases for every 100,000 people statewide, one case for every 100,000 in Miami-Dade County and three for every 100,000 in Monroe County.

The researchers sent surveys to everyone who got a saltwater fishing license in Florida in 2011, said Elizabeth Radke, an epidemiologist with the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute and the study's lead author.

They asked those license holders if they got sick after eating their catch and, if so, where they caught the fish.

Their findings were that ciguatera poisoning affected 5.6 people per 100,000 statewide, 28 per 100,000 in Miami-Dade and 84 per 100,000 in Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys. That's 28 times higher than the rate from public health records.

The toxin, found in saltwater fish including grouper, hogfish and amberjack, causes severe nausea, vomiting and occasionally neurological symptoms. There is no way to detect the toxin or prepare the fish to eliminate it.

"Unfortunately, you can't see it, you can't taste it, you can't smell it and you also can't freeze it or cook it out," Radke said.

Radke recommends anyone experiencing the symptoms of ciguatera poisoning within a few hours of eating fish seek medical help immediately. And if possible, save a piece of the suspect fish in a freezer.

Scientists have one piece of advice on avoiding the toxin: "Barracuda are sort of the mascot for ciguatera," Radke said. "So they are one fish that we absolutely recommend not eating."

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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