Ciguatera poisoning (CP) results from the consumption of seafood contaminated with ciguatoxins (CTXs). This disease is highly prevalent in French Polynesia with several well-identified hotspots. Rapa Island, the southernmost inhabited island in the country, was reportedly free of CP until 2007. This study describes the integrated approach used to investigate the etiology of a fatal mass-poisoning outbreak that occurred in Rapa in 2009. Symptoms reported in patients were evocative of ciguatera. Several Gambierdiscus field samples collected from benthic assemblages tested positive by the receptor binding assay (RBA). Additionally, the toxicity screening of ≈250 fish by RBA indicated ≈78% of fish could contain CTXs. The presence of CTXs in fish was confirmed by liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS). The potential link between climate change and this range expansion of ciguatera to a subtropical locale of French Polynesia was also examined based on the analysis of temperature time-series data. Results are indicative of a global warming trend in Rapa area. A five-fold reduction in incidence rates was observed between 2009 and 2012, which was due in part to self-regulating behavior among individuals (avoidance of particular fish species and areas). Such observations underscore the prominent role played by community outreach in ciguatera risk management.
Keywords: French Polynesia; Gambierdiscus; ciguatera poisoning; ciguatoxins; climate change; epidemiology; risk management; toxicological analyses.