STUART, Fla. – If red tide or blue-green algae gives you a rash or cough, make sure your health care provider records your ailment with a new medical code designated for problems related to toxic algae.
Just say, “Mark it Z77.121.”
Health problems caused by toxic algae tend to be under-reported, said KCSchulberg, executive director of the Calusa Waterkeeper in Fort Myers, so tagging cases with the proper code will help show just how many cases there are.
“The more data that’s collected, the more incidents of health problems caused by toxic algae, the better the grasp health care providers and government agencies have on the extent of the problem,” Schulberg said.
More cases, he said, could result in more government funding to combat algae blooms.
Like a barcode
When doctors and other health care providers assess a patient’s condition, they use codes that are part of an international classification of diseases used for record keeping, data accumulation and billing.
Think of the medical codes like the barcode on a can of green beans scanned at the checkout aisle. The code adds the cost of the beans to your grocery bill, and it records the sale so the store knows more cans of beans need to be stocked.
“In the health care industry, everything is translated into codes,” said Marc McCollaum, a physician’s assistant and an owner of Estates Medical Center in Naples.
Type in the right codes, and you can see if cancer rates are rising or falling in specific areas or around the world, McCollaum said.
“And you can do the same with contact with algae,” he said.
But without the proper coding, he added, “Who’s going to know there were problems with exposure to a toxic algae bloom?”
Information collected now, McCollaum said, helps assess current conditions and will help researchers in the future determine the long-term health effects of exposure to toxic algae.
The health effects of acute, short-term exposure to both red tide and blue-green algae are well known.
Microcystin, a common toxin produced by blue-green algae, can cause nausea and vomiting if ingested and rash or hay fever symptoms if touched or inhaled. Drinking water with the toxins can cause long-term liver disease.
Red tide’s effects are mostly respiratory, with symptoms including coughing, shortness of breath, eye irritation and sneezing.
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In a rare appearance along the Treasure Coast last October, red tide killed hundreds of thousands of fish and closed numerous beaches and oceanside restaurants when visitors and lifeguards reported scratchy throats, teary eyes and trouble breathing.
On the Gulf Coast, where red tide is more common, a yearlong onslaught that began in late 2017 killed tons of fish, including manatees, dolphins and a whale shark.
Long-term effects from red tide and blue-green algae are less well known.
Chronic exposure to blue-green algae has been linked to liver disease and is suspected of triggering neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
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