HEALTH CONCERNS IN THE TROPICS

Ciguatera

The Ciguatera toxin, when ingested by humans, can kill. It comes from an organism called Gambierdiscus Toxicus which attaches itself to algae around coral reefs in tropical areas all over the world. The toxin is not always present, but it builds up in fish over time. Larger reef fish are more likely to contain larger doses. Similarly, it builds up in humans who eat the fish, but it is not evident until a dangerous level of toxicity has been reached. At that time, a severe reaction can occur during which people with existing heart conditions are the ones most at risk and can die. Initial symptoms include nausea, a tingly feeling all over and inability to differentiate hot from cold. These can reoccur for years after contamination.

There is no way to tell without testing, whether a fish contains the toxin, and it cannot be removed by any known means once contaminated. There are estimated to be more than 500 species of fish that carry the toxin in their systems. Ones more likely to contain Ciguatera are larger individuals of barracuda, amberjack, blackjack, mackerel, pompano, sea bass, snapper and grouper. There is no cure known presently, but atropine injections have been shown to help in some severe cases.

After many years of research at the University of Hawaii, the first and only kit for testing fish samples for Ciguatera is now available. Called "Cigua-Check," a 5-test kit is $20 by direct order from Oceanit Test Systems Inc. 1100 Alakea St. 31st Floor, Honolulu, HI 96813. Phone: 808-539-2345 Fax: 808-531-3177 E-mail: oceanit@oceanit.com

Malaria

The National Academy of Sciences reports that scientists at the US Naval research center near 'Washington and the Biotechnology firm VICAL in California say they have developed an experimental vaccine more protective against the disease of Malaria than any other so far tested. By using the revolutionary approach of injecting a gene instead of the traditional form of the vaccine into animals, they say an immune response was produced in 68% of those tested. The new technique has the potential of being applied to diseases besides Malaria. Dr. Steven Hoffman says hopes are to have human trials of the Malaria vaccine underway in two years.

Another malaria vaccine known as SPF-66 which has already undergone extensive human testing in Africa was developed by a Colombian scientists and has been reported by the World Health Organization in the British Journal Lancet to have been effective in reducing infection in 30 to 40% of cases. It said the vaccine will be produced in mass quantities within the next two years. The World Health Organization plans to begin testing several other possible Malaria vaccines in the next two to four years.

A Chinese treatment for the malaria parasite in humans was recently tested by the National Scientific Research Center of Paris, France. The testing took place in Africa where 90 percent of the world's malaria cases occur and it was found to be 100 percent effective in eliminating the disease. The test was not conclusive however, as it was small and further testing is required. But scientists are optimistic that the new drug called Pyronaradium will be very effective as an alternative treatment to traditional methods to which malaria is showing increasing resistance. There are numerous vaccines also undergoing testing by various research groups now that show promise of preventing the disease all together. One called SPF-66 which was developed by a Colombian scientist and that has proved to be up to 60 percent effective was turned over to the World Health Organization last May for worldwide distribution.

Dengue Fever

After a hurricane, there is always the worry about increased numbers of mosquitoes and the diseases they carry like malaria and dengue fever. Dengue fever is on the rise in Latin America and the Caribbean. The deadly hemorrhagic form of dengue is characterized by fever, headache, rash, severe joint and muscle pain, and in the worst cases, uncontrolled bleeding and death. The World Health Organization says the current outbreak could be the most serious since 1981.

Pneumonic Plague

In October, the US Center for Disease Control issued an advisory for the Pneumonic Plague to US Virgin Islands health officials because of the high number of people traveling between the USVI and India. The disease has reached epidemic proportions in India where it is spread by a rat flea which also infects humans. More than 50 have died because of the disease on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Screening of airline passengers arriving from India, and rodent control measures have been put in place in St. Lucia. US Virgin Islands health officials however, said they have no plans to act upon the advisory.

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