CIGUATERA IN THE PACIFIC: A LINK WITH
TILMAN A. RUFF
Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Monash Medical
School, Alfred Hospital, Prahran, Victoria 3181, Australia
Summary Ciguatera fish poisoning is widespread in
the Pacific. Outbreaks and the rise in
incidence of the disease are related largely to military
activities that disturb coral reef ecology. Nuclear test
explosions and the setting up of the infrastructure for these Fig I-The Pacific Islands.
tests are major components of such military activity.
INTRODUCTION symptoms may recur with ingestion of non-toxic fish,
CIGUATERA, the commonest type of marine food alcohol, and other foods, or with factors such as intercurrent
illness.6 Such "sensitisation" may persist for years after an
poisoning world wide, is caused by the ingestion of tropical attack of ciguatera.
fish containing toxins1 produced by coral reef dinoflagellate
The dinoflagellate species usually implicated in ciguatera
plankton species. The toxins have no observable effect on is Gambierdiscus toxicus, the predominant benthic
fish, and the highest concentrations are found in large
predatory fish that feed on herbivorous fish, favoured by dinoflagellate in Pacific coral reefs.’ Ciguatera endemicity
correlates with the environmental density of G toxicus in
man for food. Ciguatera is especially common in the
2 French Polynesia, but not in other areas (eg, Queensland).
Caribbean and in the Pacific.
The most striking factors precipitating ciguatera
Ciguatera most commonly presents as an acute self- outbreaks are disturbances in the ecology of coral reefs, by
limited syndrome of vomiting, diarrhoea, and abdominal natural events such as storms, earthquakes, tidal waves, and
pain, accompanied by sensory and/or motor disturbances.
Weakness may necessitate ventilatory support. heavy rains, or by human activities such as construction
Bradydysrhythmias, myocardial depression, and vasomotor works, explosions, and dredging.7-9 In this paper the relation
with military activity is examined.
collapse may occur. Ciguatera during pregnancy may result
in abortion,3 premature labour, and neurological disease in
the newborn,4and the disease may be transmitted by
breast-feeding.3 Ciguatera is occasionally fatal, but more The Pacific Islands are divided ethnogeographically into
commonly it runs for weeks, months, or years, with three broad areas: Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia (fig
constitutional symptoms, diffuse tingling pain, 1). The Pacific has been used extensively for military
temperature-reversal dysaesthesia, pruritus, and ataxia activities. Naval, air, and communication facilities are
often being the most persistent symptoms. The diagnosis is maintained in the region and three countries fire missiles to a
clinical and therapy is predominantly supportive and number of splashdown points. Nuclear test explosions have
symptomatic. Despite reports of striking improvement with been conducted by the British in Australia (12 in 1952-57)
mannitol,S no treatment is of proven efficacy. Subsequent and at Christmas and Malden Islands (9 in 1957-58). US
attacks tend to be more severe than first attacks, and Pacific tests have been carried out at Enewetak and Bikini in
13. Lee M, Davies DP, Chan YF Prone or supine for preterm babies? Lancet 1988; i: Christchurch: The Textile Institute, New Zealand Section, 1983: 107-16.
1332. 26 Bruck K. Heat production and temperature regulation. In: Stave U, ed. Perinatal
14 Davies DP Cot death m Hong Kong a rare problem? Lancet 1985; ii: 1346-49. physiology New York: Plenum Medical Book Company, 1978: 455-98.
15. Sénécal J, Roussey M, Defawe G, Delahaye M, Piquemal B. Procubitus et mort subite 27 Lund CC, Browder NC. The estimation of areas of bums. Surg Gynecol Obstetr 1944;
inattendue du nourrisson. Arch Fr Pediatr 1987; 44: 131-36. 79: 352-58.
16 Beal S Sleeping position and SIDS. Lancet 1988; ii: 512 28. Hey EN, O’Connell B. Oxygen consumption and heat balance in the cot-nursed baby.
17. Hassall IB, Vandenberg M. Infant sleep position: a New Zealand survey. NZ Med J Arch Dis Child 1970; 45: 335-43.
1985, 98: 97-99 29. Hey EN, Katz G. The optimum thermal environment for naked babies. Arch Dis
18. Nelson EAS, Taylor BJ. Infant clothing, bedding and room heating in an area of high Child 1970; 45: 328-34.
postneonatal mortality Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol (in press) 30. Hey EN, Katz G. Evaporative water loss in the new-born baby. J Physiol 1969; 200:
19. Wennergren G, Milerad J, Lagercrantz H, et al. The epidemiology of sudden infant 605-19
death syndrome and attacks of lifelessness m Sweden. Acta Paediatr Scand 1987; 31 Haraguchi S, Fung RQ, Sasaki CT. Effect of hyperthermia on the laryngeal closure
76: 898-906. reflex: Implications in the sudden infant death syndrome. Ann Otol Rhinol
20. Nicoll A, Davies L. How warm are babies kept at home? Health Visitor 1986; 59: Laryngol 1983; 92: 24-28.
113-14 32. Parmeggiani PL. Interaction between sleep and thermoregulation: an aspect of the
21. Eiser C, Town C, Tnpp J. Dress and care of infants in health and illness. Arch Dis control of behavioural states. Sleep 1987, 10: 426-35.
Child 1985, 60: 465-70 33. Butkow N, Mitchell D, Laburn H, Kenedi E. Heat stroke and endotoxaemia in
22. Bacon C, Scott D, Jones P Heatstroke in well-wrapped infants. Lancet 1979; i: 422-25. rabbits. In: Hales JRS, ed. Thermal physiology. New York: Raven Press, 1984:
23. Stanton AN Overheating and cot death. Lancet 1984, ii: 1199-201. 511-14.
24. Sunderland R, Emery JL Febrile convulsions and cot death. Lancet 1981; ii: 176-78. 34. Milner AD. Recent theories on the cause of cot death. Br Med J 1987; 295: 1366-68
25. Weatherall IL Thermal properties of bedding. In. Story LF, ed. Proceedings of the 35. Emery JL, Howat AJ, Vanend S, Vawter GF. Investigation of inborn errors of
eleventh annual conference. Measurement, Construction, and Performance. metabolism in unexpected infant deaths. Lancet 1988; ii: 29-31.
the Marshall Islands (66 in 1946-58), in the Johnston and Micronesia. The most plausible explanation is the extensive
Christmas Island areas (36 in 1958-62), underwater in the military infrastructure and activities related to the 66 nuclear
Pacific (4 in 1955-62), and at Amchitka, Alaska (3 in test explosions at Enewetak and Bikini between 1946 and
1965-71). The French exploded 41 nuclear bombs in the 1958, and to the Kwajalein Missile Range. Alternative
atmosphere between 1966 and 1974, and continue explanations have not been offered.
underground tests-101 as of November, 1988. French
nuclear tests in the Pacific take place at Moruroa and Gilbert Islands, Kiribati (Central Pacific)
Fangataufa, two neighbouring coral atolls located in the On several of the Gilbert Islands, outbreaks of ciguatera
Tuamotu archipelago in eastern French Polynesia.
were closely related temporally to naval shipping activities
and battles in the 1939-45 war, the link being clearest for
Marshall Islands, Micronesia those at Butaritari and Tarawa (site of the 1943 Battle of
These islands were the site of several battles during the Tarawa).16
1939-45 war. As a result of military activity then, Kwajalein
and Majuro replaced Jaluit as the administrative and Line Islands, Kiribati
commercial centre of the Marshalls. As the populations here The first recorded outbreak at Fanning Island, previously
increased there were reports of ciguatera in these two areas, 10 free of ciguatera, followed the dumping of war material (tank
especially at Majuro, the rise in the 1950s being attributed mines, ammunition, batteries, and so on) by the US Army in
by the Marshallese to the nuclear test programmes carried July, 1945, before evacuation of the island. 95 cases of
out there" between 1946 and 1958.
ciguatera were recorded in a population of 224 between
Despite the reported absence of ciguatoxic fish from February, 1946, and April, 1947.17 Except for 1 case illness
Enewetak in the years following nuclear test explosions followed the eating of fish caught in areas where war material
there, severe outbreaks of ciguatera occurred in other atolls had been dumped. Toxicity decreased during the 1950s.18
in the Marshalls.9 Outpatient department records of the This outbreak at Fanning was part of the more
Marshall Islands Memorial Hospital on Uliga Island of
widespread appearance of ciguatera through the northern
Majuro Atoll for 1955-57 suggested an average annual fish Line Islands in the 1940s that started during the 1939-45
poisoning attack rate for the local population of 9-3%.12 war.19 Local residents reported that there had been no
Whereas clinic visits overall increased by 60% over this
ciguatoxicity before then. The only island unaffected was
period, gastrointestinal illness (much of which may have Washington Island-the sole island in the group where
been ciguatera) and fish poisoning increased two to three
fold. Household surveys on Rita, Uliga, and Majuro Islands
military forces were not stationed and which no military
vessels visited.20 Palmyra Island, Kingman Reef, and
suggested an incidence rate for the previous year of around Christmas and Fanning Islands, along with Johnston21 and
15%.12 In health statistics for the whole US Micronesian
Midway Islands further to the north, were affected.
Strategic Trust Territory, fish poisoning used to be
included under "accidents"-and in the late 1950s the
accident rate in the Marshalls was at least 50% higher than
Hao Atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia
that for the whole Territory. 12 The outbreak at Hao22 is the best known example of a
In a 1982 survey requested by the WHO Regional Office, military-related outbreak of ciguatera. Ciguatera had not
56% of families in the Marshalls reported that at least one occurred in Hao before January, 1965, when it is generally
member had been poisoned within the last year.13 said that the French Commissariat a 1’Energie Atomique
Only since 1982 have health statistics for the former US (CEA) began to convert the atoll for use as a staging base for
Strategic Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) nuclear testing at Moruroa and Fangataufa Atolls, several
been recorded separately for its components-the Northern hundred kilometres to the south. Newspaper and Territorial
Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Assembly records in fact show that members of the French
Marshall Islands, and Belau. Between 1982 and 1987, the Foreign Legion were illegally despatched to both Moruroa
reported annual ciguatera incidence rate for the Marshall and Hao, to begin construction work in July, 1963. The
Islands averaged over 300 per 100 000 per year, more building of an army camp for 2000 soldiers, a permanent
than three times the rate of any other Micronesian territory base for nuclear bomb assembly, and a large military airfield
with a 3500 m runway23,24 required the construction of piers
There is little doubt that and dredging of large quantities of coral.
ciguatera continues to be a
in the Marshalls than elsewhere in The first case of ciguatera reported from Hao involved
fish caught at the original French landing site in August
1966. The disease then spread contiguously to other areas of
TABLE I-CIGUATERA CASES FOR MICRONESIAN COUNTRIES
CONSTITUTING THE FORMER TRUST TERRITORY OF THE PACIFIC
the atoll over the next 2 years. The first fish to become toxic
were herbivores; by April, 1968, carnivores were causing
poisoning. By mid- 1968, 43 % of the population of 650 had
been affected by ciguatera.22 Not till 1975 did toxicity in
herbivorous fish begin to fall.25
Gambier Islands, French Polynesia
A dinoflagellate organism was first clearly implicated as
a cause of ciguatera during the 1968 outbreak in the
Gambier Islands, after which it was named. Construction of
the military base at the Gambiers began in 1967.27 Before the
Source. South Pacific Epidemiological and Health Informanon Service Annual Reports,
detonation of the first hydrogen bomb on Aug 24, 1968, a
fallout shelter was built for the local population on
Several such submarine slides have accompanied nuclear
tests,29 and extensive cracks and fissures have appeared on
Moruroa, and large areas of the atoll continue to subside. 29,32
Other Islands of Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia
Military activity may also be implicated in the following
outbreaks of ciguatera that have occurred since the 1960s in
several atolls of the Tuamotus,30,31 especially since no other
explanation has been offerred: (1) at Fakarava (western
Tuamotus), which, like Mangareva, was visited by
contaminated warships; and (2) at Pukarua and Reao
(eastern Tuamotus), which lay within the "danger zone" for
aircraft that applied during atmospheric tests.
No data on ciguatera are available for Fangataufa, site of a
military base, and reported to have been heavily
contaminated by the first French thermonuclear explosion
Fig 2-Number of recorded cases of ciguatera in French Polynesia (1968).23,32
by year, 1960-84.
Source: Bagnis R, et al. RELATION BETWEEN RADIOACTIVITY AND CIGUATERA
The outbreaks cited above raise the question of whether
Mangareva. It was not only construction materials that were radioactivity is related to ciguatera. The only reported study
dumped in Mangareva lagoon. Warships often visited addressing this issue was conducted in the Central Pacific 30
years ago and was supported by the US Atomic Energy
Mangareva, the main island. Before each of the 41 Commission.l1 No correlation between radioactivity and
atmospheric tests conducted between 1966 and 1974, the
3000 personnel on Moruroa, Tuamotu Archipelago, were ciguatoxicity was found in fish from a variety of locations,
evacuated in a dozen or so warships, from which they including Enewetak and Majuro; the possibility that nuclear
watched the explosion. The ships, radioactively explosions may have caused ciguatera by other means was
not considered. Whether radioactive fallout is related to
contaminated to varying degrees, would then disperse to
atolls with large lagoons and wide passes-Mangareva, Hao, ciguatera deserves further study, especially in view of the
likelihood of sizeable leakage of radionuclides from Moruroa
or Fakarava. Within 24-48 h of arrival in these lagoons, the
within 10-100 years.33
ships were washed down with seawater. When radioactivity
at Moruroa was considered to have fallen sufficiently,
usually 1-2 weeks after the explosion, the ships would return
the evacuated personnel to Moruroa. Despite concern by Ciguatera is substantially underreported-the South
local government officials that some of the material dumped Pacific Commission estimates that official statistics reflect
or washed into the lagoon was radioactively contaminated 24 only 10-20% of actual cases.14 The South Pacific
and despite requests to Centre d’Experimentation du Epidemiological and Health Information Service has
Pacifique to clean up the lagoons it had polluted, these were collected ciguatera morbidity and mortality data since
not cleaned,28 except at Moruroa, where in 1981 waste 1973.15 Although incomplete, their records form the best
disposal and safety trial areas were damaged by storms, available database on overall ciguatera epidemiology in the
which resulted in the dispersal of large numbers of South Pacific. For the region as a whole (excluding Papua
plutonium-containing bitumen fragments into the lagoon29 New Guinea), the reported annual incidence for 1987 was
Between 1971 and 1980 the incidence of ciguatera in the 219 cases per 100 000 population per year. 15
Gambiers remained at above 30%, with a peak at 56% in For the period 1973-87 rates more than three times the
1975.30 Between 1960 and 1984, the average number of regional average were recorded in French (eastern)
attacks of ciguatera for each of the 500-600 inhabitants was Polynesia, some of the isolated island groups in the north
57. Fishing had previously been the major source of central Pacific (Kiribati, Tokelau, and Tuvalu), the
livelihood, and the high risk of poisoning from eating local Marshall Islands in north-east Micronesia (data for 1982-87
fish has had a considerable social and nutritional impact. only), and Vanuatu (1985-87).15 Compared with the
experience in French Polynesia, ciguatera occurs less
Moruroa, Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia commonly in the Melanesian nations to the west (Papua
New Guinea and the Solomon Islands), where the
Ever since the nuclear test explosions began, fishing in the
Moruroa lagoon has officially been banned, although this population is less dependent on marine resources, and where
ban has not always been respected, particularly by morbidity reporting is less complete.34
Polynesians23 Moruroa has had a high incidence of TABLE II-CIGUATERA INCIDENCE BY ARCHIPELAGO, FRENCH
ciguatera over the past two decades,31 during which there POLYNESIA, 1960-84
has been extensive coral damage caused by the building of
the military infrastructure29 and by the explosions
themselves. The most striking example of direct damage
was a 100-140 kilotonne explosion beneath the reef at
Moruroa on July 25,1979, which caused a submarine slide
that dislocated 1 million m3 of coral and rock from the side of
the atoll and produced a tidal wave that swept over the
southern part of the atoll and through the Tuamotus. Based on: Danielsson and Danielsson35
Between 1960 and 198430 there was clearly a general I thank Dr N. C. Gillespie (Southern Fisheries Research Centre,
Queensland), Dr N. D. Lewis (University of Hawaii at Manoa), and Dr
flare-up of ciguatera in French Polynesia, with more than Struan K. Sutherland (Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Melbourne) for
24 000 cases being recorded among a population that grew reference materials and helpful comments; Prof J. J. McNeil (Monash
from 84 500 in 1962 to 174 000 by mid-1985. The incidence University) for general support; Dr Michael Hamel-Green and Dr
rose sharply through the 1960s, peaking in 1972-75 at 1200 J. T. Andrews for planting the seed for this work; Ms Kaye Winfield, Ms
Anne Fensome, and Ms Christine Hennins for typing the various versions of
per 100 000, a ten-fold increase over the 1960 figure (fig 2). this paper; and Mr Rob Klinkhamer for preparing the illustrations.
Improved case reporting has never been presented as a
major reason for the increase.
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environmental, and epidemiological monitoring, and by Australian, and Papua New Guinea Scientific Mission to Moruroa Atoll
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human activities on and near coral reefs. Military activity in from 1960 to 1984. In: Gabne C, Salvat B, eds. Proceedings of the Fifth
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Bagnis R. La ciguatera
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from the affected regions, is a good example of such an 32 Danielsson B. Under the cloud of secrecy, the French nuclear tests in the south-eastern
assault on a delicate ecosystem and the human population it Pacific Ambio 1984; 13: 336-41.
HEPATITIS B INFECTIONS AFTER
JAN WELCH1 MARGARET WEBSTER2
ANTHEA J. TILZEY1 NORMAN D. NOAH3
J. E. BANATVALA1
Department of Virology, United Medical and Dental Schools
(St Thomas’ Campus), London SE1 7EH;1 Infection Control,
St Thomas’ Hospital;2 and PHLS Communicable Disease
Surveillance Centre, London NW9 5HT3
Summary When hepatitis B developed in 3
patients who had had gynaecological
surgery, the surgeon was found to be a carrier of hepatitis B e
antigen. Of 268 patients operated on by this surgeon in one
hospital, 247 were screened for markers of recent or current
hepatitis B. 22 (9%) had such markers, associated with
symptoms in 5. The operations carrying greatest risk of
infection were hysterectomy (10/42) and caesarean section
(10/51). These findings strengthen the case for vaccination
of all surgeons and medical students against hepatitis B.
THE occupational risk to health-care workers of acquiring
hepatitis B, although small, is well-recognised. Trans-
mission from staff to patients has also been described in
association with gynaecological surgery,12 cardiac surgery,
dentistry,45 and general practicealthough it appears to be
an uncommon cause of acute hepatitis B virus (HBV)
infection. We describe a seroprevalence study of contacts
after an outbreak of hepatitis B which was traced to a
In April, 1987,2women were found to be positive for hepatitis B
surface antigen (HBsAg), neither of whom had any obvious risk
factors for infection. The investigations were done because one had
acute hepatitis, and the other-a symptom-free diabetic-had
abnormal liver function when tested to see if she was suitable to be
entered into a drug trial. A computer search for previous laboratory
investigations on these patients revealed that both women had been
patients on the same gynaecological ward several months before.
The lists of patients found to be HBsAg-positive during the
preceding months were examined, and another woman with no
obvious risk factors was identified; she had had a caesarean section
several months before. The notes of these 3 patients were obtained;
no patient had any apparent risk factors for hepatitis B, but all had
been operated on by the same surgeon. A blood sample from this
individual was obtained and found to be positive for HBsAg and
hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg). Electron microscopy of serum
showed an abundance of HBsAg and numerous Dane particles.
The surgeon stopped operating immediately. A committee to
manage the outbreak was set up, and included representatives from
the hospital’s unit management and infection control teams, and
obstetrics and gynaecology department; the Department of Health
and Social Security; and the Communicable Disease Surveillance
33 Hochstein MP, O’Sullivan MJ. Geothermal systems created by underground nuclear Pacific Islands Monthly 1985; 56: 29-30.
testing. implications for long-term, direct effects of underground testing Paper 36. Lewis ND. Ciguatera-parameters ofa tropical health problem. Human Ecol 1984; 12:
presented to International Scientific Symposium on a Nuclear Test Ban, Las 253-73.
Vegas, Jan 15-16, 1988. 23. 37. Merritt ML. Physical and biological effects of Cannikin. Report no NVO-123
34. Lewis ND Epidemiology and impact of ciguatera in the Pacific a review. Mar Fish Washington DC: US Atomic Energy Commission, 1973: 106.
Rev 1986, 48: 6-13 38. Bagnis R. How to appraise and prevent the risk of ciguatera: realities and outlook
35. Danielsson M-T, Danielsson B. The Mangareva story Greenpeace v Gambierdiscus. SPC/Fisheries 20/WP 14. Noumea: South Pacific Commission, 1988