Box Jellyfish - Thailand's 10-Year Trek

Tracking Thailand's progress over a 10-year period since the Kingdom officially acknowledged their box jellyfish problem could be compared to a trek to Mae Hong Son. It's been a slow ascent. They've been plenty of challenges, obstacles, slips and step-by-step successes. And after climbing hill after hill it is clear that there's still a long way to go.

Sadly, in deadly seriousness, on the beaches there have been too many deaths and injuries.

In 2008, 11 year old Swede Moa Bergman died long before her time after a box jellyfish sting on a Koh Lanta beach. For years there had been many stings causing death, near-death and serious injury, but Moa's excruciating death in front of her parents and sister was an avoidable tragedy and the catalyst for change.

How and why the severity of Thailand's box jellyfish problem had not been previously recognised and acted upon is debatable. There was ample warning. Those few who saw the problem hoped it and its cause would go away. It didn't. The evidence was glaring, the science overwhelming and, eventually, Thailand took ownership. 

The government issued a warning and with the assistance of international expertise, a local team comprising scientists, doctors, academics and officials came together to conduct research, educate, train and inform. It has been an enormous task, and at times a despairing grind.

The greatest obstacles faced by the team have been the ongoing denial, ignorance and covering-up by those with the most to gain from silence and apathy. From small beachside businesses to community leaders, local officials and powerful tourism and hospitality industry groups; turning a blind eye, deliberately delaying and sabotaging initiatives has been a worrying theme that has clearly blunted progress - and contributed to further stings.

Ignorance and inaction born of fear is somewhat understandable. And then there's out and out greed. Tourism is Thailand's big money spinner and there's ostensibly lots to lose from just a few box jellyfish fatalities. Scaring visitors away from Thailand's beaches and off to a resurgent Sri Lanka could be catastrophic. 

However, the reality - proved in Australia and which is slowly sinking in - is that Thailand's beachgoers would rather know if there is a risk in the water and what to do if confronted by the danger. What scares them most is the unknown, the unexpected, nasties from the deep. Not being aware, not being prepared, and not being able to deal with a problem is a problem. And this is real, it happens and it will continue to happen.

Thailand's appeal for tourists extends much further than its beaches with many choosing not to swim in the sea regardless of the risks. Those that choose to swim run a small yet significant risk. If they are made aware of dangers like box jellyfish the evidence in Australia suggests that they will still visit, they will still swim, they will still enjoy and they (along with others sharing the beach) will know what to do in the rare case of an emergency.

Box jellyfish fatalities on unsigned beaches without vinegar stations and any prevalence of information live long in the memory, and in cyberspace. The evidence is damning, for a long time. Quick action can prevent a tragedy and with the proper tools and systems in the right places, lives can be saved and the story can end on a happy note, ad infinitum.

Thankfully, Thailand has a proactive, dedicated team doing their best to get on top of the problem. With limited resources and support they have been taking big steps forward. Establishing an efficient network of education, prevention and treatment systems, and medical surveillance along Thailand's often remote and unsophisticated coastline is a massive undertaking. 

Along with the assistance of a handful of locals and expats committed to water safety, the team has been making progress in many areas including hotspots where stings are more common. Unfortunately, there are huge gaps that they simply cannot fill. This was made abundantly clear in 2017 with three life-threatening stings within one month on Koh Lanta. 

Koh Lanta is a hotspot location. Yet, despite official education, persuasion and pressure, signage is poor or non-existent (previous signs have been destroyed by disgruntled locals), treatment infrastructure lacking, knowledge insufficient and communication slow or ineffective.

The Koh Lanta community doesn't seem to care enough and is not on board, yet. Tourism here is booming. Many of the locals' pockets are brimming with Baht. Box jellyfish? The vast majority of visitors are none the wiser. No problem! 

As was reported in this blog, an Australian boy survived serious envenomation on Koh Lanta not because of Thailand's efforts with locals standing idle but because his cool-in-a-crisis fireman father knew what to do and saved his son's life. He was extremely lucky.

On the other hand, Koh Samui is also a hotspot and here it seems the system is succeeding. Prolonged training of beachside hotel, resort and restaurant staff along with visible and easy-to-read signage plus several prototype prevention nets have helped. 

While there have been reports of stings and not all beaches are covered, the outcomes have been good and this can be attributed in many cases to increased awareness and knowledge plus effective treatment both at the scene and in the hospitals. 

A 2-year old Russian boy in 2016 was severely stung on Samui and suffered cardiac and respiratory arrests. Unresponsive, he was instantly swarmed upon by trained locals who followed the correct procedures and no doubt saved his life. After a long, few, nervous minutes of silence, the post-CPR cries of the little boy signalled life delighting first-responders and his distraught mother.

On Koh Samui the message is getting across and the difference is palpable.

Where would you prefer to swim - Koh Lanta or Koh Samui?

Box jellyfish exist almost everywhere throughout the Thai coast. Beautiful remote beaches long just home to fishermen and intrepid travellers are opening up to more intense tourism. As the sea fills with swimmers, sting numbers will increase.

Thailand needs to continue moving forward no matter how slow. Ten years ago, box jellyfish did 'not exist'. Villagers, fishermen and some in hospitality knew to apply vinegar to a jellyfish sting then cover it in a paste made from a coastal vine (the latter being useless though well-intentioned), but they didn't know anything much about the animal. 

The Phuket Marine Biological Centre and satellite centres along with government health scientists have been gradually piecing together a clearer picture of the culprits. 

It took four years for self-funded locals on Koh Mak with advice from government to design, construct and install vinegar stations on the island - the first in South-East Asia. It has taken many more years for the gradual roll-out of similar across other islands including Koh Samui and Phuket. It took nine years to develop and instal a locally designed and constructed prevention net on Koh Samui. It took nine years to formally identify one of the main box jellyfish responsible for deaths and serious stings in Thailand.

While the sting of the Kingdom's Chironex indrasaksajiae Sucharitakul sp. is one of nature's fastest cellular mechanisms that can kill in a minute or two, there are many things in Thailand that take time. Over the years there have been plenty of positives, much trial and error, but the fact that box jellyfish remain in the spotlight for decision-makers and bean-counters, means they're also in the frame for visitors and locals who can make a choice based on the risk and their own personal safety.

The Thais have formed strong partnerships with international experts and other overseas vested interests mainly in the Western Pacific region. There are numerous working groups in regular communication, sharing data and gathering annually in various areas of box jellyfish research. Their understanding of the science is growing along with their ability to independently address the issues. 

It took decades to reach the level of box jellyfish awareness and action that is now commonplace in tropical north Australia. There was much resistance. There still is. And even in Australia there is also much mis-information and debate about what is right and what is best.

Thailand's trek over 10 years has been a long haul. Compared to its neighbours with similar box jellyfish problems such as Malaysia and the Philippines, Thailand leads the way. But it can't stop here, not now. Thailand's tsunami warning system is by all reports in dire need of repair, already. Momentum and maintenance (along with money) is everything when it comes to safety.

Like the tsunami warning system, box jellyfish prevention and treatment systems cannot be ignored just because there has not been an event or the numbers are low. Go tell that to future victims and their family and friends. Yes it costs to keep these things going but at what cost is a life? Investing in safety should be paramount for Thailand. Critical for their tourism industry, vital for their future. 

For 10 years they have been on the right track. And while the ox is slow, the earth is patient.

This blog aims to be here in 2028 and hopes to report that Thailand has established blanket coverage of box jellyfish safety and awareness with hundreds of warning signs spread across the coastline, stocked vinegar stations and prevention nets strategically placed along dozens of beaches, well-informed swimmers and snorkelers in lycra stinger suits, medical facilities fully trained and prepared for sting emergencies and linked to a central database, funding of research and infrastructure maintained by government, and box jellyfish sting numbers at a minimum and fatalities zero.

But in the meantime ...


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