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Second death in suspected shellfish poisonings

Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2010

ANCHORAGE - A second person from Alaska has died from a suspected case of paralytic shellfish poisoning in less than a week.

John Michael Saunders, 57, of Haines, died Tuesday at his home, one day after being released from Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau.

Saunders was flown Saturday to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with paralytic shellfish poisoning after developing symptoms, including tingling of the lips, numbness in his body, weakness and poor coordination. The crab he ate Friday was reportedly caught in front of Jenkins Rock near the Chilkat Inlet of Lynn Canal in Haines. No one else who ate the crab suffered symptoms.

If tests confirm that Saunders died from eating the crab, it would be the second death from paralytic shellfish poisoning in less than a week. Dottie Lindoff, 57, of Juneau, died Thursday after eating clams harvested in Auke Bay near Juneau.

Warning signs about the danger of paralytic shellfish poisoning are being posted at both locations, said Weld Royal, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Greg Wilkinson, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said Saunders' body is being sent to Anchorage for an autopsy.

There have been five reported cases of suspected paralytic shellfish poisoning in the past two weeks. Three people were sickened earlier this month after eating clams dug at Chiniack Beach on Kodiak Island. The higher number of suspected cases could be due to several very low tides that brought out recreational and subsistence clammers and crabbers.

DEC will conduct tests on crabs harvested from the area where Saunders got his. The crab was expected to arrive aboard a commercial airline Tuesday afternoon and will be taken to the state Environmental Health Lab in Anchorage. Test results should be ready by noon Wednesday, Royal said.

PSP is not normally found in crab meat but in the guts. Shellfish that are sold commercially in Alaska are routinely tested for the toxin and are considered safe to eat.

Wilkinson said the last time someone died in Alaska of paralytic shellfish poisoning was in 1997 on Kodiak Island. A Karluk man ate butter clams, developed symptoms and died while waiting for a plane to take him to a nearby village for medical treatment. Tests on the clams found a high level of toxin.

This year's five suspected cases are being reviewed to try and determine if they are true cases of paralytic shellfish poisoning, Wilkinson said. Urine samples from the two people who died are being sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to look for the toxin.

The state health agency is recommending that people do not dig clams or harvest crab from the suspected areas.

"We probably have cases every year that go unreported because there can be such a broad spectrum of symptoms," Wilkinson said. "Some people just get tingly lips and don't report it."



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