SUMMER MONTHS when the water is real warm.
Pica-Pica plagues Belizean bathers
It goes by many names, but there's no confusing the discomfort and disfigurement that first hits only after you've left the water. Jose Sanchez reports on a malady that will affect more and more Belizeans over the next few months.
Jose Sanchez, Reporting
The sea is one of the attractions that makes Belize and many other places in the Caribbean so enjoyable for both visitors and those of us lucky enough to live here. But that sea also has its dangers. Forget about sharks, stingrays and moray eels. Probably its biggest underwater enemy--especially during the hot summer months--is a condition known as pica-pica. According to Doctor Peter Craig, the cause of pica-pica comes from jellyfish.
Peter Craig, Clinical Dermatologist
"These adult jelly fish have small larva stages about the size of a pin head. And at times there are hundreds of these larvae in the sea. On exposure to these larvae, they get trapped into the swimming gear, the swim trunks, or bikinis. The causative factor is the release a nematocyst, which is a protective part of all of these creatures. It releases a harpoon with a thread under intense pressure that penetrates into the skin and into the dermis, and there you have the reaction beginning. The tip of this harpoon has toxins on it and it's our body's response to these toxins, which causes the clinical presentation."
That clinical presentation includes very intense itching, bumps and skin rashes that occurs once the person reaches the water. Some victims even experience fever and nausea. Just as the condition is known by various names, like sea bather's eruption and sea lice, according to James Azueta, of the Fisheries Department, pica-pica also has more than one suggested cause.
James Azueta, Co-ordinator, Ecosystems Management Unit
"Pica-Pica is actually caused by neurotoxins produced by bacterial blooms. This bacteria is also known as blue green algae. They do bloom during the hot weathers, we're getting into the hot months here in Belize and they do bloom at the same time with the sea thimbles, which are actually minute jellyfish. We cannot see the toxins in the water, but we can feel the effects, and we tend to blame the thimbles as pica-pica."
"The doctor was actually explaining to you the effects of jellyfish, where they actually stinging cells. The stinging cells, what they call nematocysts, they are the ones responsible. They go into the flesh and they stay in there then they have a reaction with the body. The body just tries to defend itself, that's why it itches and it swells and everything. That's common for the body to react to foreign bodies."
"So the outbreak that we have right now could be a combination of both."
"It could be a combination of both."
"The treatment of sea bathers eruption or pica-pica involves the use of topical creams and we use topical steroids. People with severe cases will need a short course of oral steroids for about five or seven days. There is a commercial preparation that people can buy over the counter, it's hydro cortisone cream that is one percent. That can be used, but in severe cases you will need a stronger topical steroid that is available by prescription."
"And it lasts for how long?"
"The eruption will last for two to three weeks and the bumps will eventually disappear."
"What can people to avoid pica-pica and the sea thimbles?"
"They should avoid areas of high concentration, with what we call sea moss. You can see them on calm days on top of the water, so just try to avoid these areas."
If you're still tempted to swim in the sea, it's important to remember that there is no product you can use to prevent an eruption once you run into the pica-pica. Reporting for News 5, Jose Sanchez.
Outbreaks of pica-pica have been reported virtually all over Belize, including Turneffe, St. George's Caye and Placencia. SCUBA divers who wear wet suits are not immune, as the tiny creatures easily get inside and make the condition even worse.