Australia's tropical waters come under attack from a dainty killer

Tiny jellyfish blamed for drownings


December 27 1997

PRETTY little creatures no bigger than a thumbnail may hold the key to the unexplained deaths of dozens of swimmers in tropical Australia. Doctors at Australia's Venom Research Institute suspect that the irukandji jellyfish has a sting so toxic that it can induce heart attacks and breathing difficulties that lead to drowning.

Ken Winkel, head of the institute, said between 60 and 100 people a year are treated for serious irukandji stings in Queensland alone. However, it was probable that many irukandji victims may mistakenly think they have suffered heart attacks because the creature's toxin has a delayed reaction, with syptoms not immediately apparent.

To the dismay of tourism officials, the dainty stinger is found in some of Australia's most popular resorts where British tourists are drawn each year. Because of its size and transparency, the irukandji, which has four six-inch tentacles, is rarely seen and hardly ever caught.

Peter Fenner, the chief medical officer for the Australian surf lifesaving movement, is convinced the irukandji is responsible for human deaths and he fears their numbers may be increasing. Most are found around Cairns and farther north, but the curse of the irukandji has been felt as far south as Bundaberg, right across tropical Australia and down to Broome on the coast of Western Australia.

Russell Hore, a marine biologist, has been campaigning for the development of an anti-venom since he was stung. "I was swimming at an offshore island marine park when I felt a stinging sensation on my neck," he said. "Within five minutes I had developed stomach cramps and pain in my lower spine that was knife-like. My chest became restricted and my hair was standing on end." He spent five days fighting for his life in intensive care.

Aborigines in northern Australia and Papua New Guinea have for generations told stories of pretty little stingers that paralyse swimmers. It is only recently, however, that researchers have begun to understand the seriousness of the irukandji threat. Doctors say victims can be unaware that they have been stung and almost never see the irukandji. They want more money for research. In the past 50 years Australia has produced anti-venom for a host of deadly creatures, including the tiger snake, the taipan, the brown snake, the redback spider and the irukandji's larger, more deadly relative, the box jellyfish.

In his three-year search Mr Hore has captured only 18 irukandji, all on the same day. Then the project met a disaster. Mr Hore said he transferred his precious cargo to the venom institute at Melbourne University, but a delivery delay meant the jellyfish were useless for research by the time they reached Dr Winkel's desk. He has since struggled to separate proteins extracted from the handful of tentacles he has in his possession.

"We don't know whether we will require 100 or 50 specimens to get a neutralising antibody to block the toxin binding to the cells," Dr Winkel said. "There is an ongoing supply problem with these little creatures. Developing an anti-venom is a long-term project and we will need to grow them to harvest their tentacles."

Meanwhile, Dr Fenner reports more cases of irukandji sting, either because they are more numerous or or because more people are using the reef. He continues to campaign with health authorities for research money.

"The Surf Lifesaving Association ... has a strong commitment to help to find a treatment for this tiny jellyfish that causes such misery and horrendous cost," he said. "Funding is essential to allow trained professionals to catch such jellyfish."

Tourist destinations such as Palm Island, Tully, Airlie Beach, the Whitsundays and Port Douglas have reported stings. A fully clothed professional pearl diver in Broome became a victim in 1991. At Palm Cove a swimmer was stung while inside a protective net in 1992.

Mackay, Cooktown, Lindeman Island, Great Keppel Island, Ingham, Arnhem Land, Yorkeys Knob and Trinity Beach are all known irukandji sites.

Copyright 1997 The Times Newspapers Limited.


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