A person has died from paralytic shellfish poisoning in Unalaska

Sitka Tribe of Alaska fisheries biologist Jen Hamblen empties blue mussel meat into a blender.
Sitka Tribe of Alaska fisheries biologist Jen Hamblen empties blue mussel meat into a blender. (Photo by Emily Russell/KCAW)

The person had underlying health conditions that contributed to the death, but the State Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed on Wednesday that the primary cause was exposure to the toxins from seafood.

This is the first known paralytic shellfish poisoning fatality in Alaska since 2010, although serious illnesses are reported more frequently.

The person who died ate blue mussels and snails collected from an Unalaska beach on July 4, 2020. The shellfish were cooked before consumption, and symptoms developed about four hours afterward.

The patient’s initial symptoms included tingling fingers, numbness, a floating sensation and vomiting. Several hours later, the patient reported numbness in their mouth, weakness in their hands and pain in their neck and back.

The patient was transferred to Unalaska’s clinic, then flown to an Anchorage hospital where they died.

Blue mussel samples collected from the beach the same day were found to have extremely high toxin levels — more than 100 times higher than the safe limit. The snail samples also had elevated toxin levels, but not as high as the mussels.

High levels of toxins that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning have been found recently in shellfish from numerous Alaska communities.

Recent paralytic shellfish poisoning reports have found dangerous levels in butter clams and/or blue mussels from beaches in Craig, Chignik Lagoon, Hydaburg, Ketchikan, Kodiak, Kasaan, Juneau, Metlakatla and Unalaska, among others.

State warnings apply to non-commercially harvested shellfish, since commercial operations are required to regularly test for toxins.

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