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Swimming in tropical Australian seas is now a little safer

May 10, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

The box jellyfish, a creature so lethal that its sting carries enough poison to kill 60 people, has become a little less terrifying with a breakthrough that has led to the development of an antidote for its venom.

A single box jellyfish sting will cause excruciating pain, skin necrosis and, if the dose of venom is sufficient, cardiac arrest and death within minutes.

None of those are conducive to a pleasant holiday, but science may have delivered mankind from the scourge.

A report in the Guardian notes that researchers at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre have used genome editing to produce a “molecular antidote” that blocks the symptoms of a box jellyfish sting – if applied to skin within 15 minutes. You’d want to get it on quickly, given the alternative.

“Box jellyfish are found in warm coastal waters around the world. They are most common off the coast of Northern Australia, and in the Indo-Pacific region,” a marine biology science course on Study.com observes.

“The most venomous species are found near Australia. Given Australia’s reputation as a home for venomous creatures, that’s not really a surprise!”

Researchers believe the drug – which is safe for human use and now available – will stop necrosis, skin scarring and pain.  Further research is needed to find out whether it will stop a heart attack – perhaps the most worrisome side-effect of box jellyfish venom.

Box jellyfish

The findings were published in the Nature Communications journal. They reminded some readers of the invention of an antivenom for the even-more-lethal Sydney Funnel-web Spider, first developed for clinical use in 1981 by Dr Struan Sutherland and his team at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. No deaths have occurred since its introduction.

The box jellyfish and Irukandji Jellyfish are among numerous species of poisonous jellyfish occurring in Australian waters. In general, jellyfish stings can cause pain, paralysis and death for swimmers with exposed skin. They are more prevalent in the country’s north.

Box jellyfish are believed to have killed at least 69 people record keeping began in 1883.

Irukandji, sometimes just the size of a matchhead, are another creature for researchers to work on. In Australia, they are rarely found outside Queensland, the Northern Territory and the country’s west.

More work needed on this one. The Irukandji. Sudden death in the sea

Other lethal life-forms in tropical Australian waters include the saltwater crocodile, the blue-ringed Octopus (also found in southern waters), the tiger shark, the stingray and the stonefish.

Swimming pools are safe and elsewhere trained guides can give advice on where is best to swim.

Written by Peter Needham

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