State health officials are investigating three suspected cases of paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP, in Juneau this week.
One man went to the hospital Tuesday complaining of PSP symptoms after eating razor clams harvested from Admiralty Island. Then today (Thursday), a couple showed up at the hospital with symptoms after eating butter clams harvested from either Lincoln Island or Ralston Island.
All of the suspected shellfish was gathered Easter weekend, according to State Epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin.
“Fortunately, all of the people who developed signs and symptoms of paralytic shellfish poisoning are recovering,” McLaughlin says. “But the big thing I just want to just underscore is that paralytic shellfish poisoning is a potentially fatal neuro-paralytic illness. And there can be enough toxin in one shellfish to kill a person.”
Early symptoms of PSP include tingling of the lips and tongue, which can progress to the fingers and toes. That’s followed by loss of control of the arms and legs, followed by difficulty breathing. Death can result in as little as two hours.
McLaughlin says if you think you’re experiencing PSP symptoms, don’t wait – go to the hospital immediately.
“As that toxin continues to get absorbed from the stomach and the intestines, the symptoms can actually progress,” he says. “And so, health care providers will typically monitor the patients and if symptoms do progress they’ll hospitalize them. And certainly if they progress to involve the muscles of respiration, making it difficult for the person to breathe, then they may have to put the person on a mechanical ventilator.”
McLaughlin says he sees PSP cases year round, and stresses that there’s no safe time to eat shellfish harvested from recreational beaches. He also says cooking, cleaning or freezing shellfish will not get rid of PSP.
Commercially harvested shellfish in Alaska is tested regularly for PSP and considered safe.
McLaughlin says it will take about a week to test the shellfish that sparked the three suspected cases in Juneau to confirm that they were caused by PSP.