MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. - The Martin Health System is working to get a better idea of exactly how many people are getting sick because of blue-green algae exposure.
Doctors have just started using a new questionnaire to help zero in on patients’ symptoms, and to help determine which ones are river-related.
All patients that go to a Martin Health System emergency room, outpatient office or primary care physician will be asked if they’ve had recent contact, within the last seven days, with blue-green algae.
If they answer yes, they will be asked the following other questions:
What type of exposure? Skin Contact? Inhalation? Ingestion/swallowing? Consumption/eaten seafood from lagoon?
Are you having symptoms? Respiratory? Dermatological? Gastrointestinal? None?
If having symptoms, what the time frame between exposure and onset of symptoms?
For now, doctors say many patients are not coming into contact with the algae. But, Dr. Michael Romano says they are also getting a significant number of people who are.
“Yesterday we had nine,” Dr. Romano said. He says patients experiencing symptoms are of all ages. “23 to 71,” he said. “There are a lot of people that are having symptoms from contact with the water."
The most common symptom is a rash, followed by gastrointestinal issues, then a few respiratory issues.
By using this questionnaire with all patients, doctors hope to get a better idea of how many people are experiencing river-related health concerns.
“We’re getting a little bit more information, like what kind of contact did you have? How long ago was the contact? What are your symptoms? And we’re also tracking what the disposition is, what the treatment was,” Dr. Romano said.
He says the toxin in blue-green algae causes a pretty quick reaction.
He’s hopeful their data collection can also help develop more information surrounding long-term effects of exposure.
“If we have to live with this every year and people are contacting it frequently, you know, what’s going to happen to them? We have no idea.”
Dr. Romano hopes with additional funding, the information they are collecting can be studied in short and long-term studies. He also hopes more funding can be designated to create tests to track the level of toxins in someone’s blood, which could also help show the big picture of algae impacts.
“There’s a lot of work that could be done if it were funded,” Dr. Romano said.
Parents like Jennifer Penning want more answers.
She spends some time at Shepard Park with her two-year-old. Algae is not far away.
There is no information to suggest algae near the park will hurt their health. But, she still worries about the unknowns.
“Just the idea of being around something that could make my son sick is really a big concern of mine.”