Research – Illnesses Linked to Harmful Algal Blooms

Graphic showing 2020 data about illnesses in people caused by harmful algal blooms

Highlight

  • Thirteen states reported 227 harmful algal blooms (HABs) that resulted in a total of 95 human illnesses and at least 1,170 animal illnesses.
  • The first human death reported in OHHABS was associated with paralytic shellfish poisoning.
  • A HAB event in September killed at least 1,000 fish (carp).
  • 22 human illnesses (23%) were associated with national parks, with 21 illnesses attributed to a single HAB event.

Background

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) that result from the rapid growth of algae or cyanobacteria (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae) in natural waterbodies can harm people, animals, or the environment. HAB events of public health concern are primarily caused by microalgae called diatoms and dinoflagellates, cyanobacteria, and the toxins they can produce. HAB events, which can be intensified by factors such as nutrient pollution and warmer water temperature, can have public health, environmental, and economic impacts.

HABs are a One Health issue—they affect the health of people, animals, and our shared environment. One Health is a collaborative and multi-sectoral approach that involves engagement across disciplines including public health, animal health, and environmental health. Using a One Health approach, CDC collects data about HAB events and associated human or animal illnesses through the One Health Harmful Algal Bloom System (OHHABS) to inform public health prevention efforts.

Within the context of OHHABS, the term HAB event describes the identification of a bloom or the detection of HAB toxins in water or food (i.e., absent a visual bloom). Human illnesses are reported individually. Animal illnesses are reported as single cases of illness or in groups, such as flocks of birds. The reporting system can link HAB event data with human or animal illness data. OHHABS uses standard definitions [PDF – 3 pages] to classify HAB events as suspected or confirmed and human or animal illness as suspected, probable, or confirmed.

OHHABS is available for voluntary reporting by public health agencies and their designated environmental health or animal health partners in the United States, District of Columbia, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, Marshall Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands. Public health agencies use standard forms to report HAB events, human cases of illness, and animal cases of illness to OHHABS. Public health agencies do not need to submit all three types of forms to participate.

Data collected for HAB events include general information (e.g., observation date), geographic information, water body characteristics (e.g., salinity), observational characteristics (e.g., water color, scum), and laboratory testing. Data collected for cases of illness include general demographic characteristics, exposure information, signs and symptoms, medical care, and health outcomes. OHHABS is a dynamic electronic reporting system; data within individual reports are subject to change over time. Data included in this report are from a specific point in time.

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