- CANBERRA (Reuters) - A tiny,
near-invisible box jellyfish blamed for killing two foreign tourists in
tropical north Australia may have got a bum rap but the case has opened
a Pandora's box for marine scientists.
- Until this year the sting of the peanut-sized, translucent
Irukandji jellyfish found off far north Queensland was thought to be little
more than a painful irritant.
- Then it was accused of killing Briton Richard Jordan
and American Robert King.
- The verdict puzzled experts who knew the box jellyfish's
venom could trigger the so-called Irukandji syndrome, causing excruciating
back pain, sweating, and nausea, but not death.
- Following tests, experts cleared the Irukandji jellyfish,
or Carukia barnesi, of King's death -- but in the process discovered there
are undetected, more deadly jellyfish lurking in Australian waters, with
no antivenom available.
- Jamie Seymour, a jellyfish expert with James Cook University's
School of Tropical Biology in Cairns, said the stinging cells he tested
from King were a mystery.
- "This sting was from a jellyfish I've never seen
before. It is a totally new species and opens up the floodgates as we just
don't know what is out there," Seymour told Reuters.
- Marine scientists now fear there could be up to six other
species of Irukandji, on top of the Carukia barnesi, undetected in the
waters off northern Australia that cause a deadly variety of Irukandji
- MYSTERY SICKNESS
- King, 44, died in April when a sting received while diving
on the Great Barrier Reef brought on a rapid rise in his heart rate and
blood pressure, leading to a cerebral hemorrhage.
- Jordan, 58, from Yorkshire, died in January after being
stung swimming off Queensland's Hamilton Island. The sting aggravated an
existing heart condition and no extra tests were conducted.
- Authorities suspect the deaths were not the first fatalities
from Irukandji stings in Australia, just the first recorded, as symptoms
after a sting resemble decompression, a stroke or other conditions that
may be listed as the cause of death.
- "There is no doubt others have died from stings
but people weren't in the know until now," Dr. Peter Fenner, co-founder
of the International Consortium of Jellyfish Stings, told Reuters.
- "But with this publicity, people remember the times
divers collapsed and died on beaches with heart attacks blamed."
- The first recording of Irukandji syndrome was noted in
northern Australia by a doctor during the 1940s.
- But the mystery set of illnesses was not named until
1952 when it was identified by Dr. Hugo Flecker, who traced the world's
deadliest jellyfish, the Chironex fleckeri, a larger relative of the Irukandji
which has killed 67 people in Australia.
- He named the syndrome after the Aboriginal people of
the Irukandji tribe living at Palm Cove, about 25 km (16 miles) north of
Cairns, who for generations knew of an invisible danger in the water that
could trigger a strange sickness.
- They suspected they had been bitten by something in the
sea but they did not know what, with the sting barely noticeable at the
time and the pain not kicking in for about 30 minutes.
- CURIOUS DOCTOR
- It was not until 1966 that Cairns doctor Jack Barnes,
who is now dead, found the culprit.
- For several hours he lay on the seabed, weighed down
with diving gear, looking for what he suspected was a tiny, transparent
marine creature. His patience paid off.
- He spotted a tiny jellyfish, its bell measuring just
one inch across, with stinging cells on its body as well as its four, 20-inch
- To test his theory, Barnes stung himself, his 14-year-old
son and a local lifeguard. All three were rushed to the intensive care
unit of a nearby hospital but survived.
- The culprit was named in the doctor's honor, Carukia
barnesi, and is commonly known as the Irukandji jellyfish -- one of about
15 box jellyfish known in Australia and 24 globally.
- Irukandji syndrome has also been recorded elsewhere,
across the Indian and Pacific oceans, but not as often as in Queensland
where hordes of tourists a year are attracted to the pristine tropical
beaches and the Great Barrier Reef to dive and snorkel.
- Every year, between November and May, about 30 people
are taken to hospital in far north Queensland suffering from Irukandji
syndrome but a lack of research funding has hindered progress in finding
- Instead the Chironex fleckeri, the world's most venomous
marine creature, has been favored for research, along with the long list
of other deadly creatures in Queensland, ranging from sharks and crocodiles
to sea snakes, stone fish and spiders.
- But this year the numbers seeking treatment jumped to
about 200 -- with two deaths -- as the tiny jellyfish was washed ashore
from its usual deep waters by prevailing currents and winds, slipping through
protective nets shielding beaches.
- Seymour said the deaths sparked a new interest in jellyfish,
with the federal government committing $56,000 for further research which
was hoped to attract private sector funds.
- "We desperately need research funds because until
we know what kind of jellyfish there are, how can we produce antivenom
for them," Seymour said.
- "The last few months have shown that we really know
nothing about what is going on with box jellyfish."
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