Dangers of box jellyfish stings on beaches of Southeast Asia

box jellyfish are not new-comers to Southeast Asia, its the reporting that's new

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'Jellyfish rule the world - Scientists warn that jellyfish are taking over the world's oceans. Meet your new overlords.'

Sensationalist press headlines like this from the Global Post in October 2013 would have us believe the world is in imminent danger from these menacing blobs of jelly that pulsate their way through our seas in rapidly expanding numbers.
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The polluted, dying seas of northeast China and Japan have given rise to terrifying tales of vast masses of jellies that have overtaken the oxygen-deprived waters. Fishermen often find their nets chock-full of the monstrous Nomura's jellyfish, semi transparent blobs that weigh up to 200 kilogrammes each.
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But the problem in Southeast Asia is not one about the life of the oceans, but life and safety of swimmers. In contrast to the huge flabby beasts of Northeast Asia, the species of serious concern in Southeast Asia are near invisible underwater, and often as tiny as your little toe. These seemingly innocuous creatures, the box jellyfish, are often described as the deadliest animal on planet earth.
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Many deaths by box jellyfish have occurred right on the beach where the victim was swimming, just two or three minutes after being stung and long before the victim could be rushed to a hospital. In one report of a Swedish woman killed in Langkawi, Malaysia, in January 2010, the husband is quoted as saying his wife died in his arms, still out in the water, just seconds after being wrapped by the jellyfish's deadly tentacles. Masses of its deadly and painful stings apparently sent her into shock, causing her heart to stop.
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box jellyfish were originally seen to be an Australian problem

Australia's significant experience with box jellies, originally called 'sea wasps', has identified the most deadly killer of all as chironex fleckeri, a rather large variety whose square bell can measure 30 centimetres along each side, and pull four multi-strands of tentacles that trail three metres behind. Primitive as jellyfish appear to us, chironex surprised researchers when they found it had primitive eyes and something of a brain that allowed it to make 'decisions' while actively hunting prey. This is no gelatinous blob just floating around the ocean waiting for a fish to flounder into its tentacles as most ocean jellies do. Chironex has been recorded patrolling back and forth along the same beach, swimming faster than a man, repeatedly following the same course on its hunt. Its 24 primitive eyes allow it to detect and swim right around objects in the water – and that would probably include people if they did not move and blunder into the trailing tentacles.
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Transparent and almost invisible, box jellies set a deadly trap for people wading and swimming. Human eyes just don't catch them. And even if the jellyfish would prefer to escape, it's often too late. Young children have splashed into the trailing death trap while playing in shallow water. Swimmers run into their tentacles, and though occasional, divers have also been stung. Through the 1970s and 80s there was a misplaced belief that these were strictly Australian residents, and a local Aussie problem. But the reality was a lack of recognition and reporting in Australia's neighbours to the north. Any number of Southeast Asians may have been killed by jellyfish before that, with no-one beyond the local villages hearing about it.
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With the number of tourists flocking to the famous tropical beaches of Thailand and neighbouring countries now running into the tens of millions, the number of deaths and severe stings from these silent killers is on the rise. And the reporting is now becoming swift and global.
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Australian records show over 70 people have been killed by two families of deadly box jellyfish in over a century since records began. Despite widespread understanding of the problem down under, and many precautions having been taken, Australia still averages one death per year by this nemesis of shallow tropical seas.
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the stingings are not new, but the reporting of box jellyfish is

With foreign tourists of varied nationalities now becoming victims of box jellyfish in Southeast Asia, new light is being brought to what was surely an old, but unreported problem. Several scientific sources suggest that a staggering 20 – 40 people are killed by box jellyfish in the Philippines each year, most being Filipinos among the tens of millions who make their living from fishing and other marine activities among the nation's 7,000 islands. But records show some foreign tourists have joined those unfortunate statistics too.
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Thailand has only recently begun collecting data on box jellyfish stings and fatalities, with five confirmed deaths occurring over the past 20 years , and probably more. Severe stingings or near-death cases number at least 14. Most victims were foreign tourists swimming or wading in shallow water close to the beach, the typical hunting ground of these silent killers. Thais in remote island communities may have been stung and/or killed by box jellyfish during the same period, with no reporting of the cases.
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Most human-jellyfish encounters took place in the Gulf of Thailand, where the calmer, shallower water known to be favoured by the box jellies suggest conditions are more favourable. There is one sad record from the Andaman Coast, however, where a group of four young Swedish girls playing in the shallows of Khlong Dao Beach, Koh Lanta , were stung in April 2008, resulting in the death of one of them – the only recorded fatality on Thailand's Andaman coast. The deeper, clearer water surrounding most islands here is apparently not as well suited to jellyfish hunting as the shallower, more placid waters within the Gulf.
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In its central location in Southeast Asia, Malaysia cannot escape the scourge of the killer jellies, as much as it might want to. There have been accusations of Malaysian officials ignoring the issue for years, apparently in an attempt to avoid negative press reports of killer jellyfish that might hurt their booming tourism industry.
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Even private industry in key beach resorts like Langkawi seems reluctant to discuss the problem openly. Here is a report in the Langkawi Gazette about the Swedish woman mentioned above for her reported death just seconds after being stung: 'The Chironex Box Jellyfish is well-known ..... at beaches along the mainland in Malaysia, Australia, Thailand, Philippines ...... There has been a confirmed sting in May 1996 and a suspected box jellyfish sting in January 2010 in Langkawi. Consequently the likelihood of being stung by this type of Jellyfish in our immediate area is rare'.
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At the same time, a report in the Phuket Wan newspaper from nearby rival destination Phuket took an entirely different, more open approach to the same event: 'Alarm as Box Jellyfish Kills Tourist on Langkawi; The death of a Swedish tourist on the Malaysian island of Langkawi, apparently from a box jellyfish sting, has heightened concerns about swimmers' safety throughout the region. Swedish media reports have focused on the death, which is likely to alarm some visitors to Malaysia and Thailand.' At least three deaths by jellyfish stings have been recorded in Malaysian waters.
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Indonesia, with 17,000 islands lying between Malaysia and Australia, surely has populations of box jellyfish, though there is little news of them. Reports of deaths by jellyfish in distant islands probably wouldn't travel to any central authority. Bali, the centrepiece of tourism in the country where a fatal incident is unlikely to go unreported, has no records of death by chironoid box jellyfish.
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meet the 'Irukandji syndrome', the sneakiest killer in all of nature

While the collection of statistics of death by chironex fleckeri (the most deadly variety of box jellyfish) has only begun recently, a second, smaller branch of box jellies has an especially sinister characteristic to keep itself off the records. Tiny and almost invisible, Irukandji jellyfish may have hidden their tracks across the human body so well their victims were listed as having died of heart attack or organ failure. Meet the 'Irukandji syndrome', surely one of the sneakiest killers ever devised in nature.
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Just one or two centimetres across the bell, and almost transparent, Irukandji jellies tow four little tentacles loaded with death and deception. Where the larger chironex jellyfish leave huge, blistering welts across the human skin that slowly heal into ugly, permanent scars, the Irukandji kind do exactly the opposite. A sting from these may leave no sign at all, and only a small itch at the time of envenomation. Swimmers may even disregard such minor stings as sea lice, or simply not realize they have been tagged at all. Following a sting, however, their bodies will soon face a perplexing life-and-death struggle that can baffle the best of doctors.
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Half an hour or more after a sting, multiple organs in the victim's body are suddenly stricken by toxins. Muscle pain, cramps and spasms, vomiting, sweating, breathing difficulties, hypertension and even heart failure follow. Severe cases result in death, often without the victim, the family or doctors being aware that a tiny jellyfish was even involved. The cause of death may be listed as heart attack, respiratory or organ failure – whichever symptom of the Irukandji's attack is most obvious to the medical examiner. The tiny pinprick on the skin may never be noticed.
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Again, the most deadly of these miniature killers was identified in Australia by researcher Jack Barnes, who allowed himself to be stung, under observation, in his attempts unravel the mini creature's deadly mysteries. A northern Australian aboriginal tribe, the Irukandji, helped Barnes identify the specific jellyfish causing the havoc in the human body – thus their scientific name, Carukia barnesi, and that of the startling 'Irukandji syndrome' they produce.
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Like their bigger box cousins that have caused so many human deaths, the Irukandji jellies are also widely distributed across tropical Asia, and far beyond. This invisible demon of the sea has many cousins spread across the planet, though few are as deadly as the Australian-Asian variety. Japan has non-lethal box jellies. Every month Waikiki beach in Hawaii is visited by thousands of box jellyfish, eight to ten days after each full moon. The east coast of the USA has had infestations of jellyfish in the cubozoa family, also box jellies, though their stings are not deadly. 200,000 people are reportedly stung by various jellyfish in Florida each year.
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by John Everingham