Nine Dead and 78 Hospitalized After Eating Sea Turtle Meat

( – A mysterious form of food poisoning has struck down over 80 people in West Africa. The victims had eaten sea turtle, a local delicacy — but sometimes a lethal one. Scientists still don’t know why turtle meat is sometimes toxic, and their main hope is that if people stop eating the endangered animals, they’ll also stop being poisoned by them.

On March 9, health authorities in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island group off the coast of the West African country of Tanzania, reported that nine people had died on Pemba Island; another 78 had been hospitalized. Medical officer Dr Haji Makari told journalists that all the victims had eaten sea turtle meat on March 5. By March 8, eight children and an adult were dead.

Sea turtle meat is a popular delicacy in Tanzania and surrounding countries, but there are two problems with eating it. One is that out of the seven species of sea turtle, six are endangered, and hunting them for meat is putting even more pressure on their declining numbers. The other is that eating sea turtles is, essentially, playing Russian roulette.

It’s usually safe to eat sea turtle meat, but not always. Sometimes the result is a rare and unpredictable kind of food poisoning known as chelonitoxism, which affects turtles in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans — in other words, almost everywhere sea turtles are found.

Scientists don’t know why turtle meat is sometimes poisonous; laboratory tests can’t find any toxins in affected samples, but when those same samples are fed to test animals, it kills them. In humans, the symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and liver failure. Children are particularly vulnerable.

So far there’s no cure for chelonitoxism, and all doctors can do is try to manage the symptoms and hope the patient recovers. Zanzibar disaster management expert Hamza Hassan Juma, who’s leading a team sent to Pemba after the latest outbreak, says the solution is for people to just stop eating turtles.

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