BIO 203

Irukandji Syndrome

Irukandji Syndrome is something you NEVER want to experience. It is so incredibly painful that some people beg for death when in its demonic grasp. Although other box jellyfish can inflict similar symptoms that are labeled as Irukandji Syndrome, only C. barnesi can cause the true Irukandji Syndrome extremes.  

 The Name  

The Irukandji Tribe, a group of aboriginal Australians, have always lived along the Northern coast, particularly around the Queensland area. For years, tribe members had been encountering C. barnesi and experiencing agonizing, and sometimes fatal, symptoms without knowing what was harming them (Nickson 2009). Because this mystery illness so often happened to the Irukandji tribe, it was named after them in 1952 (Fenner and Hadok 2002).  


                                                                         Wikimedia Commons: Steve Evans


 ZAP! You feel a quick and  small sting, you look around, see nothing, and the pain doesn’t persist. Just ignore it; you probably imagined it, right? Wrong.  Probably one of the most dangerous aspects of C. barnesi is its delayed venom release. You may not feel pain immediately, but you will begin to have “severe systemic symptoms…some 30 minutes after” the sting (Fenner and Hadok 2002).                  
            Symptoms include:
                    1. Severe low back pain

                    2. Excruciating muscle cramps in all four limbs, the
                        abdomen, and chest

                    3. Little to no control of extremities

                    4. Sweating

                    5. Anxiety

                    6. Restlessness

                    7. Nausea

                    8. Vomiting

                    9. Headache

                  10. Palpitations: irregular heart beat

                  11. Hypertension: high/raising blood pressure 

                  12. Pulmonary oedema: fluid entering lungs

                  13. Toxic global heart dilatation: enlargement of heart

                                                                          (Fenner and Hadok 2002)


These symptoms are caused by two major events stimulated by the venom. Firstly, the venom “acts as a presynaptic neuronal sodium channel agonist” and the amount of noradrenalin (“adrenaline’s ‘cousin,’” often called “norepinephrine” in the U.S. (Jeremy 2008) released is greatly increased. (Fenner and Hadok 2002)


This video follows the stinging story of two divers that were routinely looking for C. barnesi around a swimming beach. They do this quite often and the odds just weren’t in their favor for this dive. This is a great look at the real symptoms of Irukandji syndrome.  


Can We Stop This?  

                                                                                     Wikimedia Commons: Sara Fleming 

As seen in the symptoms listed above, the heart can be greatly affected by Irukandji Syndrome by palpitations, hypertension, and toxic global heart dilatation. Kelly Wintera, Geoffrey Isbistera, Jennifer Schneiderb, Nicki Konstantakopoulosa, Jamie Seymour, and Wayne Hodgsona developed an experiment in order to view the effects of C. barnesi venom on the heart and published their research paper in 2008. In order to obtain venom, they first collected Irukandji jellyfishes, removed the tentacles, and then extracted and mixed the venom with distilled water. Wintera, et. al, then inserted the venom in to laboratory rats (which was approved by the Animal Ethics Committee of Monash University) and observed the arterial pressure and plasma. It was noted that before the venom exposure, adrenaline was not detectable in the plasma, but after the injection the “adrenaline concentrations increased markedly.” The peak of adrenaline and noradrenaline concentrations was three minutes after the venom injected. Obviously, this time frame cannot be applied to humans due to difference of heart and overall body size. When the drugs guanethidine and reserpine were used, the negative response to the venom was greatly reduced. Guanethidine blocks the release of noradrenaline and reserpine stops the transport of noradrenaline. Using these results from 2008, Wintera, et. al, say they are working on anti-venom, but so far there has not been complete success. The standard box-jellyfish anti-venom did not affect this type of cardiovascular response, mostly because the anti-venom binds to some proteins, but not all of them. It is not determined what all of the proteins in the venom are and which ones are causing Irukandji syndrome.


            Wikimedia commons: Ewkaa 

 Although there is no anti-venom yet, the search continues and there are a few steps that can possibly help with the extreme pain. It is recommended, for all jellyfish stings, that vinegar is immediately poured upon the sting area. The vinegar, for unknown reasons, is able to disable any unfired cnidocytes on the skin, thus reducing the chance of even more venom being injected into the body (Fenner and Hadok 2002). Once stung and in a hospital, the medical staff can administer morphine, but this may only help with a fraction of the pain or not at all. 



Also, there is a myth that urinating on the sting area can help. This is not true. Do not urinate on the sting area. It will not aid in slowing or reducing any pain or release in venom. It will only make you smell bad.  



                                                                                                  Wikimedia Commons: turbotorque                           


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Last Updated: April 26, 2013  
Wikimedia Commons: Peter Southwood     Wikimedia Commons: GondwanaGirl    Wikimedia Commons: Zaneta Nemcokova