SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Highest levels of PSP toxin ever recorded
PSP considered a public health emergency, alerts issued


June 10, 2011

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - As the State of Alaska Department of Health's Section of Epidemiology investigation into paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) in Metlakatla continues, another recent investigation by marine scientists in Southeast Alaska revealed some of the highest levels of toxin ever recorded.

According to SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), in recent weeks there have been at least 14 cases of suspected paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) involving people who harvested and ate different types of shellfish harvested from beaches near Ketchikan and Metlakatla/Annette Island. Several of the people with PSP wound up being hospitalized, including a couple who spent time in intensive care. There were five cases of PSP in 2010, including the first two PSP-related deaths in Alaska since 1997 (in Juneau and Haines, with the Haines case also listing heart failure as an official cause of death).

“Many of our tribal citizens eat shellfish they gather through subsistence and recreational harvests, but this can be a very dangerous practice,” said Dr. David Vastola, SEARHC Community Health Care Services Medical Director. “There are many people who believe myths, such as only gather shellfish in months that contain an ‘R,’ or they think they can cook or freeze away the toxins. Unfortunately, these shellfish myths could make someone seriously ill or even kill them. We join state and federal health officials in urging Southeast Alaska residents not to eat shellfish gathered from local beaches. There’s too much risk involved, especially with the recent PSP levels.”

Two people with suspected PSP were admitted to a local hospital in Ketchikan on Wednesday. The two men both had symptoms of PSP after eating mussels harvested from Rotary Beach.

Toxic levels in shellfish are anything more than 80 micrograms of toxin per hundred grams of shellfish meat. Baby mussels taken May 25, 2011, at a boat dock in Ketchikan had toxin levels estimated at over 30,000 micrograms per hundred grams of shellfish meat. Other tests involving butter clams and cockles also were significantly higher than the safe level of toxin. According to scientists monitoring the algal bloom, butter clams and other shellfish can remain toxic for a long time. They have advised against anyone harvesting local shellfish.

“At those levels, a single mussel is enough to kill several people,” said Kate Sullivan, with the University of Alaska Southeast, a member of the Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom (AHAB) monitoring and early warning program - a partnership between UAS/UAF, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, other state and federal agencies, area commercial shellfish growers, and subsistence shellfish harvesters. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has provided funds to purchase toxin testing kits to aid in the response to this PSP outbreak.

According to Sullivan, “This is not a typical year by any stretch of the imagination.”

State epidemiologists working in Metlakatla have posted signs warning of Paralytic Shellfish Poison (PSP) at local stores, the post office, popular beaches, and boat launches. Police have also made announcements on maritime radio.

The Ketchikan Public Health Center has also issued a PSP alert stressing that the levels of toxins are unusually high and locally harvested clams, mussels, oysters, and cockles are NOT safe to eat now or any other time during the year.  

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services considers all recreationally harvested shellfish in Alaska to be at risk for toxic levels of PSP since nearly all of the state’s beaches go without regular monitoring. The only shellfish from Alaska the state considers safe is commercial shellfish, because it is routinely tested. Many of the harmful algal blooms that cause PSP toxin are invisible so the only way to accurately test for PSP levels is to use expensive lab tests. State and federal health officials urge people not to eat any shellfish they gather in Alaska.

Early signs of Paralytic Shellfish Poison (PSP) often include tingling of the lips and tongue. Symptoms may progress to tingling of fingers and toes, then loss of control of arms and legs, followed by difficulty breathing. Death can result in as little as two hours. Anyone showing PSP symptoms should seek immediate medical care or call 9-1-1.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is considered a public health emergency by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Suspected cases must be reported immediately to the Section of Epidemiology by health care providers at 907-269-8000 during work hours or 800-478-0084 after hours.


Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews


Sources of News: 

SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC)

Alaska Department of Health and Social Services

Ketchikan Public Health Center


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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

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