WITH 23 confirmed deaths and 194 suspected cases of ackee poisoning in less than three months, government chemists are now conducting intensive testing on the fruit to determine the reason for the unusually high number of fatalities linked to it.
Speaking at a press conference at the Health Ministry's head office in downtown Kingston Tuesday, Director of Health Promotion and Protection Dr Eva Lewis-Fuller said that while the cases were initially being reported in St Mary and St Ann, the ministry has since received reports from other parishes as well.
"At this time, all parishes are involved in the outbreak, mainly parishes of the north-east region and some parishes of the west," she said.
"We have been investigating this, because there has been some unusual characteristics of this outbreak. It is not following the pattern that we are used to in the old days when we have ackee poison, when it affected mainly child[ren] over five and it was evenly distributed between men and women," Lewis-Fuller added.
Dr Lewis-Fuller said that men accounted for 60 per cent of those cases reported to the ministry — the majority of them being between the ages of 25-44. The last confirmed death was that of a 52-year-old man from St Mary on February 10 at the Port Maria Hospital.
Tuesday, the ministry said that it is no closer to finding out the reason for the increase in ackee poisoning, but has been cautioning persons — through advertisements — about the proper preparation of the fruit as well as warning against forcefully opening the ackee pods.
"We do have some theories and hypothesis," said Dr Lewis-Fuller. "We had very cold weather during December and there are theories surrounding the delayed opening of the ackee and, therefore, persons might have been stimulated to do their own thing with opening the ackee."
Ackee contains hypoglycin, which is known for lowering the blood sugar to lethal levels. Symptoms of ackee poisoning include uncontrollable vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, and drowsiness.
The ministry has assured that there has been no suspected case of ackee poisoning in countries where the fruit has been exported. They believe this is due to the fact that ackee prepared for export is tested for hypogylcin.
In the meanwhile, Chief Medical Officer at the Ministry Dr Sheila Campbell-Forrester said ackee poisoning has now been upgraded to the status of a reportable condition, although there has been a tapering off of reported cases in the past few weeks.
"Ackee poisoning was really not a reportable disease and so we may have been having cases of ackee poisoning in the past, which were not been reported or recorded or may have been missed [or] thought to be gastroenteritis," she said.