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Conch poisoning cases continue to grow

With ocean temperatures rising, the presence of vibrio parahaemolyticus is expected to “intensify” in Bahamian waters, according to Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands, who confirmed yesterday there are now 25 cases of conch poisoning in The Bahamas.

Sands said officials were awaiting laboratory results in relation to another 20 suspected cases.

The confirmed cases include patients at Doctors Hospital and Princess Margaret Hospital.

The outbreak was revealed on July 4 when officials said four cases stemmed from Potter’s Cay.

Vibrio can be easily prevented by vendors washing their conch supplies in fresh water. According to Sands, this measure is essential, but health officials have met some challenges.

“Given the very warm temperatures we expect that the bloom of vibrio is going to intensify,” said Sands, who noted that health officials have confirmed live vibrio parahaemolyticus is present in the water at both Potter’s Cay and Arawak Cay.

“So, you will have vibrio in the water.

“We know that the problem with conch poisoning is not the conch.

“It is the water that the conch resides in and is stored in, etc.

“We know that if you rinse off the conch with copious amounts of clean, fresh water, that you can virtually, if not completely, eliminate the risk of conch poisoning – at least from vibrio.”

According to health officials, cooking the conch removes the chance of it being contaminated.

Since the outbreak, health officials have visited vendors across New Providence and posted health advisories and tips aimed at vendors and consumers washing and storing conch properly.

A handful of vendors interviewed following the first few cases admitted they were under the impression storing and washing conch in saltwater was best.

Sands said there has been some resistance in dissuading some vendors of this notion.

“…We believe that there may be some vendors who do not fully accept the belief that conch should be washed in fresh water,” he said.

“…Some people are somewhat resistant to the idea.”

The minister said some people sometimes have “fixed, false beliefs” and while it is not ill-intended, the ministry is exploring putting “some teeth” into the public health campaign, including punitive measures, depending on compliance and buy-in demonstrated in the days and weeks to come.

Sands acknowledged that oversight, surveillance and enforcement of all vendors washing all their supplies in fresh water is less than feasible, but in cases where a vendor can be identified as the source of conch poisoning, action will be taken in the interest of public safety.

“As we see what happens in the next day, week and so on and so forth…we are now looking at what options we have under the law to strengthen compliance with the recommendations,” Sands added.

Another challenge is ensuring visitors are sensitized to best practices.

One such group is cruise ship guests.

“Public health and surveillance are meeting every day to identify an appropriate strategy,” he said.

“Obviously, this is like Goldilocks. You can’t be too hot; you can’t be too cold.

“You have to get it just right because you want to strike the right balance, erring on the side of public safety. When you are dealing with human beings the issue really comes down to education and a belief that what is being told is actually fact.”

Sands again cautioned the public against purchasing conch from vendors who do not have access to fresh tap water or distilled water, and is only washing the conch in seawater.

There were 223 cases of conch poisoning in New Providence in 2003.

In 1991 and 1999, there were also outbreaks of conch poisoning with a combined 1,100 cases, Sands said.

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