Pfiesteria-related woes have eased, state reports Most people affected in Md. have recovered

December 04, 1997|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF

Four months after being exposed to Pfiesteria-related fish kills on the lower Eastern Shore, 13 of the 15 people who suffered the worst learning and memory problems are completely recovered, the state's top health official said yesterday.

Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, secretary of health and mental hygiene, said the other two patients are "nearly normal."

"This is time-limited and reversible, at least as we know it today," Wasserman told a gathering of health officers and environmental health directors at a meeting of the Maryland Association of Counties in Baltimore.

In August, a team of physicians from the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University went to the lower Eastern Shore and found the first evidence that exposure to waters where Pfiesterialike organisms were active was making people sick.

In recent months, members of the same team have performed follow-up studies on some of Maryland's 37 identified Pfiesteria-related cases.

While delivering the good news, Wasserman warned that the summer's fish kills, and reported illnesses, may be just the beginning for Atlantic coast states. Pfiesteria, he said, "is an early warning about the environment. It's really a wake-up call for us."

No fish kills or new cases of illness have been reported recently.

While there is no evidence that people can get sick from eating fish attacked by Pfiesterialike organisms, the summer bloom of the marine microorganism sent the sales of some fish wholesalers plummeting by 80 percent.

Lewis R. Riley, state secretary of agriculture, told the health officials yesterday that "the market's coming back," although sales are still soft for some wholesalers on the lower Eastern Shore.

After this summer's fish kills, the state spent $500,000 promoting its $400 million-a-year seafood industry. Riley, who plans to retire next month, said the Glendening administration may propose spending a similar amount next year.

Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, chairman of the Citizens Pfiesteria Action Commission, told the gathered health officials that Pfiesteria has had one positive effect: It's refocused public concern on the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Pressure to clean up the bay "waned a little over recent years," he said. "I think this Pfiesteria has brought that back."

Hughes also said Frank Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms Inc., has assured him that the Salisbury-based poultry processor is not planning to move out of Maryland.

Some poultry industry officials have warned that large processors may pull out of the state if new regulations to control poultry runoff raise the cost of doing business. Nutrients from chicken manure are suspected of stimulating outbreaks of Pfiesterialike organisms.

In an interview with a local television station, James A. Perdue, Frank Perdue's son and chief executive of the company, made remarks that some interpreted as threatening a pullout.

Hughes said Frank Perdue assured him that would not happen.

"He said we're not moving from Maryland," Hughes said.

A spokesman for Perdue Farms Inc., Richard C. Auletta, confirmed Hughes' comments.

"The company is headquartered in Salisbury, and that's where it's staying," Auletta said.

Dr. Diane L. Matuszak, deputy director of community public health for the state, said scientists working with her office are trying to identify a "surrogate" for detecting toxic levels of Pfiesteria and related single-celled predators in water.

No simple test is available for Pfiesterialike organisms. Scientists still haven't isolated and described the toxins the organism produces to attack its prey.

Where Pfiesteria is suspected, Matuszak said, state workers might use simple, readily available tests to count the number of cells of any type in water samples.

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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