Health Department Warns of Bacteria Outbreak

Paul Effler
Paul Effler

HONOLULU (KHNL) -- A favorite food here in the islands may be at the center of a health scare. The Hawaii department of health is looking into a jump in the number of bacterial infection cases associated with a type of fish. The bacteria is salmonella and it's coming from raw ahi tuna, according to health officials.

The health department investigation only looks at raw ahi, so no other types of fish are believed to have contamination issues. Still, doctors say, the increase in a particular type of salmonella is unusual.

Fish is a major food source in Hawaii. It can be prepared in many different ways, but the Hawaii health department issues a warning to consumers, saying a bacteria outbreak associated with raw ahi tuna has jumped in recent months.

"This was a particularly uncommon of salmonella so that was unusual in our opinion," said Dr. Paul Effler, chief of the disease outbreak control division of the Hawaii department of health.

This salmonella strain is called para typhi b, and it's causing doctors to take notice.

"But when we looked at this bug, we thought we're seeing too much of this," said Dr. Effler. "Maybe there's an issue here."

From October of 2007 to now, there have been 31 reported cases in Hawaii. The average is about five a year. So the recent outbreak just in the past four months is six times the annual average.

Doctors say symptoms may include nausea and vomiting, but it's not life threatening.

"The risk is probably low but it's never zero when you consume an animal product raw," said Dr. Effler. "And people need to be aware of that, that there is some risk albeit low, when they eat raw fish."

The health department is working with the food and drug administration to find the source, because this bacteria is also popping up on the mainland.

"A couple of cases that have occurred in Colorado and one in California and their DNA fingerprints match our cases, and they also consumed raw tuna in the week prior to illness," said Dr. Effler. "So this suggests there is an international source potentially that's coming in and being distributed, not just in Hawaii but in other venues."

So, the investigation continues, as the health department monitors this unusual strain of the salmonella bacteria.

Because this could become an international probe, health officials don't know how long it might be before they figure out the source of the contamination.