Researchers working on new test to detect cyanobacteria in humans

Reporter: Veronica Marshall Writer: Drew Hill
Published: Updated:

Blue-green algae play a role in human health and we see what it does to our water. A diagnostic test at a doctor’s office may still be far off but researchers are working on developing a test to detect cyanobacteria in humans.

Olivia Ringland celebrated her first day of summer break from school by taking to the water, trying solo kayaking for the first time.

“I’ve never really been out by myself, especially on this type of kayak, but it was terrifying. And now I find out there’s algae in the water,” Ringland said.

She added, “I’ve never been affected by it because I don’t live on the water, but a lot of my friends who do say they get red tide allergies.”

Coughing, headaches, and rashes can all impact people after they’ve been exposed to toxic algal blooms.

Dr. Virginia Roberts is an epidemiologist with the CDC and says that proving that algae is the source of these symptoms is another story.

“We saw that very few people and animals were getting some sort of diagnostic testing conducted,” said Dr. Roberts. “There are big limitations with being able to go to a doctor and get tested.”

“It is really an important area – the idea of developing those tests – making sure that they work well, and getting them out so that public health laboratories and clinicians and others will eventually have more access to that kind of testing,” Dr. Roberts said.

Barry Rosen is a professor at FGCU’s Water School. “Being able to detect these compounds is a little difficult. It’s a longer process, and it’s not an individual test,” Rosen said. “You really have to run a lot of samples – like 40 at a time. And it’s expensive and time-consuming. So, it’s not something simple that you would do in a doctor’s office.”

But, there’s hope that we could get there sooner rather than later. Rosen studies algae toxins in freshwater. He says this is a building block for future diagnostic tests.

“This makes that link between what you’re finding in people, and what is actually generated by the cyanobacteria, by the blue-green algae in the water. We’re trying to understand that piece so that places like CDC can then say, ‘Okay, this is the kind of bloom we have to watch out for,'” said Rosen.

“This is really the fundamental, basic building blocks of the science. The applied aspect that you’re asking for – that’s still down the road,” Rosen said.

“Citizen complaints can really drive some of that testing. So people really do have a part to play in keeping themselves safe,” Roberts said.

Rosen says his project could bring eventually bring us closer to diagnostic testing. But until then, Ringland says he’s just going to “Shower. And get everything off of me and clean my clothes.”

If you believe you’re experiencing symptoms of blue-green algae toxins exposure, you can reach out to your county’s department of health below:

  • Collier County: 239-252-8200
  • Charlotte County: 941-624-7200
  • DeSoto County: 863-993-4601 or 863-491-7580
  • Glades County: 863-946-0707
  • Hendry County: 863-674-4041
  • Lee Coutny: 239-332-9501

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