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Tarpon illnesses baffle experts

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

It's not the fish, and it's not the water, scientists say.

A marine science expert said Monday that he found no connection between two fish with lesions caught by Florida fishermen and a skin condition recently reported by three Tarpon Springs sponge divers.

Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that two snowy grouper sent more than a week ago to North Carolina State University for testing are probably not the cause of a recent outbreak of bacterial infections in the divers and nearly a dozen Volusia County fishermen.

Tests on lesions found on the fish for signs of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that can cause serious skin infections in humans, turned up negative results late last week, NOAA officials said Monday. The fish were caught in the Atlantic, off Port Orange. Fishermen became concerned when the same strain of staph turned up on both coasts.

"We didn't find anything that supported a link between staph in the fish and staph in humans," said Dr. Craig Harms, a North Carolina State University College assistant professor of veterinary medicine who specializes in aquatic animals and conducted the tests.

Three fish with lesions were sent to state and federal laboratories after 10 fishermen in Volusia County and three Tarpon Springs sponge divers recently reported having a painful skin condition thought to be caused by a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection.

Commonly known as MRSA, the drug-resistant strain of bacteria is often found in the nose or on the skin and can sometimes cause lesions that at first look like spider bites. Spread by touching, especially objects such as towels or sheets, it can infect the bones or blood and result in pneumonia or even death.

Public health officials say there is no approved test for the detection of staph in water. But they said water is an unlikely source for the bacteria, and there is no record of the disease breeding in large bodies of water.

Scientists examined the two fish under a microscope and monitored several culture samples for signs of staph in the fish, Harms said. The lab work confirmed experts' hypothesis that fish-to-human transmission of the bacteria is highly unlikely. Harms said he's confident the fish are not the source of the recent spate of infections. But he said the fact that the grouper were frozen when they arrived at the lab made test results somewhat inconclusive.

"It's just hard to say without a little fresher material," Harms said.

Tests on a third grouper with lesions sent to the Florida Marine Research Institute late last week are not yet complete, institute spokesman Scott Willis said.

Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, a statewide fishing industry group, was relieved to learn that the fish sent to North Carolina tested negative for signs of staph. Jones appealed to Gov. Jeb Bush for help about two weeks ago after receiving dozens of reports about fishermen who had recently contracted MRSA. Jones said the negative test results should help calm fears in the commercial fishing industry.

"It sure is a lot better than getting a news release that says "Snowy grouper filled with staph,' " Jones said. "More science coming out makes it better for everybody."

NOAA officials said they would continue to monitor the situation. Similar skin ulcers to those reported on the grouper have been reported on some marine life, including sea turtles, found closer to shore.

At least one of the Tarpon Springs spongers said he developed a severe rash on his legs and feet after encountering a wall of cloudy yellow water that left a burning sensation on his skin during a dive last month. Another Tarpon Springs-based diver saw a dime-sized puncture that he received while diving in the gulf swell to a grapefruit-sized boil on his knee.

Nevertheless, state and local health officials say widespread fears that the fish or water is the source of fishermen's illness is probably an overreaction. MRSA, or staph, infections occur most often in places where people are confined to close quarters, such as a prison or hospital or even a cramped fishing vessel.

"MRSA is a very common bacteria that many people carry, but it doesn't develop into anything to be worried about unless conditions are perfect," said Pinellas County Health Department spokeswoman Elaine Fulton-Jones. "We have not known large bodies of water to be the source or the breeding ground for staph."

County health experts plan to educate local fishermen and others about the bacteria and its treatment. In the meantime, Fulton-Jones said, people concerned about their risk of infection should take extra care with personal hygiene.

"People just need to remember," Fulton-Jones said, "how important hand washing is to prevent spread of staph infections."

_ Candace Rondeaux can be reached at