Cuba Laboratory First in Latin America to Monitor Biotoxins Responsible for Seafood Poisoning Epidemic

A harmful algal bloom (a.k.a. “red tide”) off the coast near cape rodney, nz.  Courtesy: Red tide general collection, carleton college

A harmful algal bloom (a.k.a. “red tide”) off the coast near cape rodney, nz. Courtesy: Red tide general collection, carleton college

On 25 March, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced the opening of a new laboratory in Cuba designed to monitor ciguatoxins through the use of nuclear and isotopic techniques, the first of its kind in Latin America and the Caribbean. The creation of the lab was a joint effort between the IAEA Environmental Laboratories and local partners aiming to address the epidemic of ciguatera, the most prominent non-bacterial seafood poisoning in tropical and subtropical regions.

“Ciguatera toxins have been a major problem in Latin America and the Caribbean for years, and now we have become the first laboratory in the region capable of monitoring ciguatera toxins on-site through the use of nuclear techniques,” said Carlos Alonso-Hernandez, Vice Director at the Centre of Environmental Studies of Cienfuegos (CEAC). “From our training in nuclear techniques, we can contribute to robust seafood safety programs that are crucial for the health and well-being of our region, not to mention the economy.”

Ciguatoxins are naturally occurring biotoxins associated with Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), also known as “red tides,” the result of increased nutrient levels in surface seawater usually caused by coastal upwelling and/or agricultural runoff. Contaminated seafood that has previously ingested ciguatoxins during HABs is responsible for tens of thousands of poisoning incidents yearly around the world. Symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness or even death in rare, extreme cases.

The IAEA trained Cuban scientists as well as those nearly 40 other countries on how to use nuclear tools - particularly the radioligand receptor binding assay (RBA) - to identify ciguatoxins in seawater samples more accurately previously used methods. The laboratory in Cuba will be used to test seawater samples from around the Caribbean and Latin American coasts.

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