Public health records may significantly underestimate the number of people in Florida who are sickened by a rare dangerous food-borne toxin carried by popular sport fish, including barracuda, grouper and amberjack, according to a new study published online June 29 in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
The analysis by researchers at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute and the Florida Department of Health found Florida’s annual incidence of poisoning with a toxin called ciguatera — which causes severe nausea, vomiting and, occasionally, neurological symptoms — is estimated at about 5.6 cases per 100,000 people. That is far more than the previous estimate of .2 cases per 100,000, derived from reports physicians submit to the Department of Health. This level of underreporting is consistent with that reported for other food-borne pathogens.
The findings reaffirm pre-existing warnings to avoid eating barracuda. But the data indicate that in Florida, grouper, amberjack, hogfish, snapper, mackerel and mahi mahi harvested in tropical and subtropical areas were also associated with illness.
“I think there is a broader awareness the farther south you go that barracuda are carriers but perhaps not as much awareness that a fish like grouper or amberjack can carry ciguatera,” said Dr. Elizabeth Radke, the lead author of the study and a graduate of the doctoral program in epidemiology at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and UF College of Medicine.
“I don’t think that people necessarily need to stop eating these other fish,” she added, “but they need to be aware there is a risk, and if they start feeling sick after eating, they should see a physician.”