ANNAPOLIS – As of Friday, medical authorities have identified 37 cases of suspected Pfiesteria-related illness in Maryland, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Symptoms of what the department now calls “Pfiesteria syndrome” include skin lesions, confusion and memory loss.
“There were people who got into their cars and literally could not remember how to get home,” said Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson Dr. Karen Poe.
The cases were culled from 156 reports collected by local health departments, medical providers, and the Department of Natural Resources Fish Hotline. Many of these cases were months old at the time.
“As far back as last October,” Poe said, “watermen were saying, `Something’s wrong with me — I have lesions, I can’t breathe.'”
Only those individuals who had come into contact with river or Chesapeake Bay water in which fish kills and/or fish lesions had occurred were considered cases. These people were then studied by the Maryland Medical Diagnostic team.
This team, also known as the Pfiesteria Medical Team, is a group of six clinicians from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland which reports to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It has been examining cases since August. Among its findings:
* Of the 37 cases, 23 victims reported memory loss;
* One of the cases involves a Pennsylvania resident, while the rest involve Marylanders;
* Eleven of the cases involve workers from the Department of Natural Resources or the Maryland Department of the Environment, and ten others involve watermen;
* All 37 were exposed to the Pocomoke River.
Pfiesteria piscicida is a water-borne microbe that exists in many different forms. Some prey on fish, using toxins to attack the brain, liver, kidneys, skin and immune systems.
Fish kills in Kings Creek and the Pocomoke River have been linked to Pfiesteria. Fish with lesions have been discovered in the Chicamacomico, the Nanticoke and the Rappahannock — all Chesapeake tributaries. Similar fish kills have taken place in North Carolina, including one near Pamlico Sound which killed up to 1 billion Atlantic menhaden in 1987. At a governors’ conference in September, Md. Gov. Parris N. Glendening compared these incidents to the “canary in the coal mine” whose death warned miners of poison gas. North Carolina health officials recently decided to begin looking for possible human victims of Pfiesteria. -30-