By Morgan Adderley
Tribune Staff Reporter
THERE are now ten confirmed cases of conch poisoning, Health Minister Duane Sands told The Tribune yesterday.
Dr Sands confirmed that all cases have arisen from patients eating conch from Potter’s Cay Dock.
He added that the educational campaign for vendors is continuing, as the illness can be prevented simply by washing conch in fresh water.
While Dr Sands said punitive action, such as shutting stalls down, is not being considered at this time. However, he admitted that it “may ultimately come to that”.
However, the health minister underscored that as a first approach, the Ministry of Health considers this action to be inappropriate.
Dr Sands also called for consumers to play a more active role in the prevention of conch poisoning by demanding that they see conch washed before they eat it raw.
On July 4, Dr Sands announced in a press conference that there were four confirmed cases of conch poisoning and as many as six unconfirmed cases.
However, he could not confirm yesterday whether the six additional cases that were confirmed last week were from those initial reports.
“What I’m saying is six more people were confirmed, I can’t say that it is the same six who were awaiting confirmation,” he said.
“So in the absence of having the data and the names in front of me, I couldn’t tell you…All I can say is a total of 10 people have tested positive.”
Conch poisoning is caused by vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria which requires salt water to live.
According to Dr Sands, when ingested, vibrio bacteria can cause watery diarrhoea, which is usually accompanied by abdominal cramping, vomiting, fever, nausea, and chills.
“Vibrio is not an issue of the meat itself,” Dr Sands said nearly two weeks ago. “Vibrio is a bacteria that ordinarily lives in seawater and is a part of the surface of the conch. The conch meat itself is not infected with vibrio parahaemolyticus. So you can wash it off.”
Yesterday, Dr Sands said the waters “at and around” both Arawak Cay and Potter’s Cay have been tested. Officials have confirmed the presence of vibrio in the water.
He added that officials have also tested conch being stored in seawater at a number of stalls as well. Some of the conch indeed tested positive for vibrio, while others tested negative.
While Dr Sands said some vendors “certainly” have heeded the calls to wash conch in fresh water, others will require more effort to change long-held beliefs.
On July 5, The Tribune interviewed a number of vendors at Potter’s Cay Dock. While the majority advocated washing conch meat with fresh water, a minority of vendors said salt water is the only efficient away to clean them.
To this, Dr Sands said: “You have to understand that there are many things uniquely Bahamian in terms of beliefs. Bahamians believe that if rain water gets on your head, you can get pneumonia.
“Now I, as a doctor, I can tell you 100,000 times, that is not so. But it’s still not going to change the fact that that is what people believe.
“And so we are dealing with science and we are dealing with beliefs. And so we need not be judgmental or dismissive. What we need to do is to educate the public and to educate the vendors.”
Dr Sands also said that many vendors are also referring to getting rid of slime when they call for the use of salt water to clean conch.
In this regard, he said there is “nothing wrong” with cleaning conch with salt water initially, as long as they are cleaned with fresh water after. Dr Sands also called for consumers to play a role in preventing the spread of the illness.
“The public has to ensure that if they are going to be consuming raw conch, that they insist that the conch is washed in fresh, clean water.
“And I would recommend that if they don’t either insist or see the conch being washed in clean, fresh water, that they not purchase it, or that they not consume it.
“The consumer will force vendors to do the right thing…If you say, ‘I am not going to buy conch from you unless you wash it in clean, fresh water,’ then after a while people will change their behaviour.”
When asked if the outbreak could result in stalls being closed down, Dr Sands said not at this time.
“The best approach is not punitive in the first instance, ok? It may ultimately come to that.”
He added that many of the vendors are not familiar with the major outbreak of conch poisoning that occurred in the 1990s, when there were over 1,100 cases.
“As far as (the vendors) are concerned, they been cleaning conch and ain’t nobody ever get sick from it, and ain’ no one could teach them how to clean conch because they know how to clean conch,” Dr Sands said.
Because of these beliefs, the health minister said the education needs to be sustained, considerate, and sensitive, but firm.
“But to now say that you must shut somebody down because they don’t believe that what we’re saying is correct…as a first approach, that is not appropriate.
“Now, what we may end up doing is posting signs, what we may end up doing is additional public education campaigns, and so on and so forth, as we get more and more data.
“And particularly as the summer moves on. Because as the water gets warmer and warmer, the bloom of vibrio will increase.”