‘Super bug’ from algae is making Floridians sick

Doctors know of a rare illness called ciguatera that is making people sick after eating certain kinds of fish. They think a “super bug” algae is to blame.

Researchers from Florida Gulf Coast University are zeroing in on what’s helping the super bug spread though the water around the Florida Keys.

“What we’ve learned in the last year is that there are some bugs that produce about 1,000 times more toxin than the ones they co-exist with,” said Dr. Mike Parsons, professor of marine science at FGCU. “I get emails every week or two from people who have contracted ciguatera.”

Ciguatera is a kind of food poisoning that affects your nerves. In extreme cases, it makes warm items feel icy cold and frigid things feel scalding hot. Understanding where the super bug that causes the illness lives and what makes it grow are imperative. They want to predict which fish will make you sick and which will not.

Parsons and his team have been working to solve that problem since WINK News first followed along with them a year ago in the Florida Keys. He said significant changes in the water, like temperature, can help or hurt the bug grow. They are still collecting samples and working to answer how it lives through testing in their laboratory.

“We’re looking in deeper water,” Parsons said. “They tend to like cooler temperatures.”

Ciguatera sickens about 1,000 people a year in Florida. Certain fish, like Barracuda, eat the super bug, producing the toxin. Since you cannot kill it by cooking the fish, you run the risk of getting sick if you eat it.

The red area indicates disease-endemic areas of Ciguatera. (Credit: Channing Frampton/WINK News)
The red area indicates disease-endemic areas of Ciguatera. (Credit: Channing Frampton/WINK News)

Mary Ann Reis contracted ciguatera after eating fish found near the United States and the British Virgin Islands. She said she spent the whole day lying down while having “incredible burning and itching” in her earlobes. With no known cure, all doctors can do is treat the symptoms. The effects of the illness can last for decades.

Florida’s recreational saltwater fishing industry generates more than $11 billion a year and supports more than 160,000 jobs. Barry Baroudi, an experienced fisherman from Charlotte County, said he does not think the super bug will affect the fishing industry here.

“It’s not something that affects all the fish,” Baroudi said.

Baroudi said he knows about ciguatera and the harm it can do, but his solution is simple.

“I just know to avoid eating the fish that contain it,” he said. The risk of ciguatera from fish caught in southwest Florida is very low. The International Association for Medical Assistance for Travelers says, “Ciguatera Fish Poisoning commonly occurs in tropical and subtropical areas, particularly in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea.”

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