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Sargassum not a clinical concern

Environment 13 Jun, 2023 Follow News

Sargassum not a clinical concern

By Lindsey Turnbull

Even though there have been recent media articles on the formation of a flesh-eating bacteria contained within the Sargassum seaweed currently found in the oceans, the current swathe of Sargassam that has washed up on Cayman’s shores is not a cause for clinical concern, according to the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Nick Gent.

He said that while the dissemination of a recent Florida Atlantic University study in the media had, understandably, raised some questions for residents and visitors of the Cayman Islands, it was important to put the information into perspective.

“Vibrio species of bacteria is a very rare cause of necrotising fasciitis, more commonly referred to as ‘flesh eating disease’. Vibrio species bacteria more commonly cause gastrointestinal infections usually via the consumption of seafood, especially shellfish. It is equally important to note that this type of bacteria are found in salt waters around the world. It is not a new threat, nor is it specific to the Caribbean,” he advised.

Dr Gent said the public should remember that, should anyone suffer any injuries on the shoreline or while swimming - regardless of whether Sargassum is present or not - that contaminating bacteria that can infect wounds are always present, and therefore injuries that break the skin should be taken seriously. The advice remains that such injuries should be cleaned well with soap and fresh running water.

“As it pertains to testing of Sargassum for vibrio bacteria, there are currently no plans to undertake such testing at this time. However, we note that the Cayman Islands has various testing facilities locally as well as links to reference laboratories abroad if the need for such testing arises,” he stated. “In short: there are no clinical cases of concern and no reason to believe there is an increased risk to the residents and visitors of the Cayman Islands.”

With regards to best practices for the removal of Sargassum, the Department of Environment has developed informational materials and a seaweed removal enquiry form to help landowners determine when action is needed to address stranded Sargassum and when it is best to let nature take its course. Special precautions should also be taken during turtle nesting season. These materials may be accessed on the DoE website: https://doe.ky/sustainable-development/best-practices-guides/sargassum-removal/

Judy Hurlston, Public Education & Outreach Officer with the Department of Environment, advised that it was difficult to predict where the Sargassum would wash up on Cayman’s shores.

“Since Sargassum has really only been an issue of concern for less than 10 years, there isn’t enough data to confidently predict trends,” she said. “While the eastern districts on the windward side of the island are generally the first to be impacted by sargassum around mid-summer, the first arrival of the season this year impacted Seven Mile Beach, which is considered an irregular location.”

Ms Hurlston said it really depended on the weather which could change quite quickly even from their best efforts at prediction.

“That said, although Sargassum can be somewhat of a nuisance at times, it provides a host of ecological services for marine life. Sargassum mats are usually carried out back offshore by currents in a few days,” she said.

Ms Hurlston stated that while the presence of Sargassum in the sea did not necessarily require people to completely avoid entering the water, it was advisable to exercise caution and consider the conditions.

“Depending on the extent and density of Sargassum, swimming in areas heavily affected by the seaweed may be less enjoyable due to the potential odour and visual disturbance,” she said. “Additionally, decomposing Sargassum can release hydrogen sulfide gas, which could cause discomfort for individuals with respiratory sensitivities. The decaying seaweed also creates an environment favourable for pests like flies and mosquitos. The odour emitted by the decaying seaweed can cause temporary discomfort and nausea. In the sea, it may be associated with sea itch or other little stings.”

Government is currently working on a National Sargassum Response Plan, led by the Ministry of Sustainability and Climate Resiliency.

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