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Dr Lisa Gershwin on Phuket for box jellyfish seminars last year

No Phuket Deaths from Box Jellyfish: Misinformation Shocks Expert

Monday, November 22, 2010
THE recent death of a Swedish tourist from box jellyfish stings in the Thailand-Malaysia region was confirmed today by the Swedish honorary consul for Phuket and the Andaman region, Dr Sompoch Nipakanont.

He said the fatality took place about two weeks ago in Cha-Am, a popular resort in the Gulf of Thailand - not on Phuket, as some newspapers in Thailand have been reporting.

''The Swedish woman died in Cha-Am, not on Phuket,'' he told Phuketwan today. ''Three Swedes have died from box jellyfish stings in the region in the past three years,'' he said.

A Swedish newspaper named the latest victim as Ann Nordh, 59, from Jonkoping. Previous deaths have occurred in Langkawi, Malaysia, and on Koh Lanta in Krabi.

Box jellyfish are known to be becoming more prevalent in South-East Asia and elsewhere in the world.

Precisely why Swedes appear to have fallen victim in three fatalities in three years is not clear. At this stage, it appears to be coincidence.

The Phuket Marine Biology Centre has led a campaign in Thailand and Malaysia to increase awareness about the growing dangers of box jellyfish, the world's most toxic creature, and its treatment.

A meeting of honorary consuls and embassy representatives with Phuket Governor Tri Augkaradacha was told today that vinegar is an essential part of any first aid box on Phuket and along the Andaman coast, or anywhere that box jellyfish are liable to wander. Only vinegar reduces the toxicity of the potentially deadly box jellyfish tentacles.

Australia has experienced box jellyfish arriving in numbers at previously-clear tourist destinations.

Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin, who as Director of the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services is an acknowledged international expert on box jellyfish, told Phuketwan today that she was surprised at the misinformation being spread on one online site in Thailand that purports to be authoritative about the security and safety of expats.

''I was really struck by not the lack of information, but actually the MISINFORMATION that these commenters had,'' she wrote in an email. ''The consequence of this, of course, is that these are the people who have put themselves on the forefront of knowing, and what they know, in many of the cases in these comments, is flat dangerous.

''Their perceptions are a danger to themselves and to others.

''I think yes, in a strange way, there is a cover-up. But it is a far more sinister cover-up than one that could ever be created by the authorities - this is a cover up by the people who are most at risk - the people in the water, the tourists and the operators.

''I don't think this is a cover up by tourist operators to save money - I believe that this is a cover up by tourists and other recreational users of the water, who don't want to believe that they themselves are at risk of something that they have never seen.''

Dr Gershwin visited Phuket last year and gave several seminars on box jellyfish as well as another dangerous marine creature known as an irukandji, and offered her advice on techniques to treat people who have been stung.

She had a lot more to say about box jellyfish and misinformation today. Here's what she told Phuketwan via email:

1) if the government or operators say there is a problem, the tourists and visitors don't want to believe it - in this way, it is extremely difficult for the authorities to institute any program of education, awareness or improving safety

2) if the tourists and visitors don't believe that there is a problem, they are unlikely to urge or even cooperate with any sort of governmental assistance to manage the problem.

So then, is the whole thing left to the gods? No, I don't think so. But I think it means that the government and the operators have a very difficult challenge on their hands:

- if they do nothing, people will die and deaths will inevitably negatively affect tourism - we live in an age of information, and it is impossible to hide;

- if they wait for the public to demand action, it may never happen, or more likely, it will happen all at once when "one too many" people die, whatever that number is - we will never know what that number is, until it becomes a massive media thing like happened here in 2002, and many millions of tourism dollars will be lost with a very long ripple effect.

- if they begin taking action without the proper education to accompany it, the public won't believe it and may be scared off by it, and it will likely fail;

- if they begin an awareness and education campaign without the proper actions to accompany them, the public won't believe it because it will ring hollow, and it will likely fail;

- if they get it right, the actions and education will be credible, and the public will believe it, and the actions will be effective, and the public will embrace it, and safety will improve and very likely be an asset to tourism - but how?

This is very tricky.... and a lot is at stake... not just tourism dollars, and not just life and death, but also public confidence and trust, which takes a lot longer to recover once broken

My advice:

The people in the water need to believe there is a problem, and just as importantly, that it is manageable. Without these two beliefs, there is really nothing the operators can do to protect anyone, and there is really nothing the government can do either.

What I have read in the comments to the story [on the Thai Visa chat site] clearly illustrates that these two beliefs are not in place. It all comes down to awareness and education. It worked in the Whitsundays, [a popular Australian destination] which was just as in denial and more hostile (there were death threats against me), but it worked.

And now the Whitsundays tourism industry is doing well, and the stingers are largely managed and no longer scary or a taboo subject. And when stings occur, they are well managed, as are the media stories surrounding them, of which there are plenty.

I think the best strategy for Thailand would be to not concentrate on education of Thai operators, per se, although that is necessary too, but rather aim for a more globally-orientated stinger awareness.

I guarantee that the operators will respond as the tourists dictate (because they have to in order to stay in business). But the tourists have to see that there is a **manageable problem** in a pro-active and balanced way, rather than leaving it to the fickle hands of panic after one too many deaths occurs.

It does no good to compare jellyfish fatalities to road accidents, because the typical person just is not afraid of road accidents (though they should be!), but they are afraid of jellyfish because it's the unknown, and it also impinges on their recreation time when they don't want to have to think about dangers.

And it does no good to compare jellyfish fatalities to elephant attacks, because elephant attacks are too abstract and most people will never be in a situation where there is any risk to them at all; but with jellyfish, the reality is that there is a danger when you enter their habitat, and you can't see them, and that is very scary to a lot of people.

It is not the fatalities that will cripple the tourism industry, it is tourists' fear that it could happen to them and that there are no safeguards in place to protect them. This is the part that must be managed, the fear and the vulnerability.

Of course that comes from managing the fatalities, but not really - I mean, you can have no fatalities and still have a tourism problem because of fear - it's just that fatalities tend to imply that it is not being managed **enough**, and the consequences can be disastrous.
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Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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I was stung by one while swimming @ Najharn a few years back

Vinegar did NOTHING !.. HOT water soothed the pain and HONEY reduced the welts & blistering

Posted by danny on November 23, 2010 01:00

Editor Comment:

Vinegar does not reduce the pain. Yet it is the only known treatment for reducing box jellyfish toxicity. In other words, it stops the box jellyfish toxins from continuing to kill tissue within the victim's body. People owe their lives to it.

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Vinegar does one thing only - it neutralizes the stinging cells or nematocysts that shoot the venom. It has no effect on the human body. There are around 1million stinging cells to each 1cm of tentacle on a box jellyfish that fire the venom faster than a bullet like a hypodermic needle action. The vinegar 'disarms' them and prevents them from firing. The faster this can be done, the less venom in the body, the better chance of survival - as long as the tentacle is attached it keeps shooting the venom. Removing the tentacle by hand or scraping, sand etc BEFORE applying vinegar is like a booby trap and a chemical reaction sends all the venom into the body - this is possibly what happened to the young girl in Koh Lanta 2008.

Posted by Andrew on November 25, 2010 14:47


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