UK health alert raised after rise in jellyfish toxin levels

The surge in figures is likely to coincide with the high-profile professional football match on Wednesday night between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield

The emergency level of an infectious disease alert in the UK has been raised following the emergency stage of the government’s public health alert system after an unprecedented rise in numbers of Omicron krill.

The surge in numbers is likely to coincide with the high-profile professional football match on Wednesday night between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield.

Experts say there is no evidence of a link between the numbers of sprinter squid and toxin-carrying jellyfish – the two common squid food sources for the UK – in the UK nor with the large levels of toxin found in the UK this year, for which a similar rise in worrying figures has been warned to be imminent.

The latest surge comes from a highly migratory species that feeds on the larvae of flippers of the east coast curlew. It has been rising in numbers this summer and the number of Ems Clubbi larvae has increased dramatically.

Evidence of a rise in toxin-carrying jellyfish numbers could be linked to the rapid rise in numbers of Ems Clubbi larvae found on beaches across the north of the UK.

These rays are prevalent on the north south shore of Scotland, the west coast of Wales and the east coast of England – including the British coastline. The numbers of these rays have been booming across the UK this year with the first month of 2017 seeing an unprecedented rise.

Experts say the rise in invertebrate jellyfish could be linked to a spike in UK temperatures in spring, which usually could keep jellyfish numbers low, and a previous jump in toxin levels this year.

However, the pesticide residues dumped in the Thames in May, blamed for a baby baboon dying in the water and causing a major sewerage system water pipe explosion that flooded several rivers, is not believed to be related to any increase in jellyfish populations.

Incidents like last month’s baby baboon drowning is seen as a possible reason why toxin levels could have grown for this summer, experts warn.

“It [a spike in toxin levels] may be one factor but it is not necessarily the prime cause,” said Delphine Rose, an ecologist who has worked at the Marine Conservation Society since 2007. “The increase in Ems Clubbi larvae is particularly rapid at the moment so people need to be aware that there could be hundreds or thousands floating in the sea.”

The UK jellyfish alert level was raised to amber yesterday (Tuesday 3 October) at the same time as the number of reported foreign cases of a rare jellyfish infection Omicron coi show signs of becoming widespread. It is believed to affect about one in four of those they have been in contact with, causing attacks and affecting people who have just returned from the beaches.

It is thought the spike in numbers could be linked to warm temperatures in summer and warm water temperatures this summer in the UK, which should be low for Omicron coi. This rise in toxin levels is expected to happen again in 2017.

The UK has had an outbreak of foulmouthed shellfish deaths in 1854 and a run of jellyfish deaths in 2015. All known cases affected crabs, not shellfish.

“The increased levels of toxin is concerning and may raise the alert level in the short term, but there is no evidence to suggest that we are seeing a rapid rise in toxin levels,” said Mark Finlay, director of policy for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and senior policy adviser to the Toxics Link.

“There is a risk, however, that if it continues, it could have a devastating impact on shellfish stocks. However, the chemicals are relatively new, and all organisms make an up and down cycle of toxin levels in their lifetimes and after years in warmer coastal waters.”

What is Omicron coi?

Omicron coi is a poisonous jellyfish discovered in Japanese waters in the 19th century and has since spread to areas from Japan to Indonesia and Australia.

Its poison, Vorpacurium paradoxum, is believed to cause fever, diarrhea, aches and pains in humans.

Until the last couple of years, the toxin was thought to be rare, so most of its victims would not have known about the poisonous, greenish substance coursing through their blood and organs.

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