Fish Pedicures and Zoonotic Diseases

July 10, 2012

As you can see the blog hiatus is over – it’s not that things have got a lot quieter (they haven’t), I’ve just missed blogging!  And what better way to get back into things than with a random anecdote…

When a friend asked if I would like a fish pedicure for my birthday my initial response was “Ewwww!”  It wasn’t at the thought of fish biting me per se (I’ve snorkelled and had wild fish do that – it’s not bad but it wasn’t something I found brilliantly therapeutic either). It was the thought that those fish had been nibbling on someone else’s feet before they nibbled on mine – surely that meant they could spread diseases to me?

Well having now had a look at what information is out there it turns out there aren’t many reported problems from these fish.   The Health Protection Agency in the UK produced a report called “Guidance on the management of the public health risks from fish pedicures”(PDF) that states:

On the basis of the evidence identified and the consensus view of experts, the risk of infection as a result of a fish pedicure is likely to be very low, but cannot be completely excluded.

The report also has a list of recommendations it says should further reduce the risk of disease transmission.

So maybe the pedicures are not such a bad idea then…

What I hadn’t considered, (and I really should have done), was that some of these fish could be being imported into the country already infected.

That’s what the scientists behind this letter in Emerging infectious Diseases found.

Large numbers of the toothless carp used in fish pedicures are imported weekly into the UK (generally from Indonesia and other countries in Asia) via Heathrow Airport.

In April last year there had been a disease outbreak among some imported fish and it turned out the bacteria killing them was most likely one called Streptococcus agalactiae.

To get an idea of how common it is for bacteria to be carried into the country by these fish, scientists from the Fish Health Inspectorate of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (that’s a mouthful and a half!) visited Heathrow Airport 5 times and sampled the fish being imported.

They found quite a range of bacteria on these fish and in their water, some of which did have the potential to infect people too. (Nice!)

The researchers say that these fish or the water they travel in could potentially be harmful to people, particularly those people with previously existing medical conditions like diabetes or who are immunosuppressed for some reason.  They do say however that if fish identified as disease-free were reared in controlled facilities this risk would probably be reduced so perhaps this is the way to go?

Another thing the researchers mention is that these controlled facilities should have “high standards of husbandry and welfare”.  I’m not aware of any studies looking at the welfare of these fish (please let me know if you know of one).  What we do know is that if the welfare of fish is bad then this can lead to poor fish health.  If the fish are unhealthy they are less able to fight off a pathogen (e.g. bacteria) so something that might ordinarily have caused no problems can instead go on to infect many fish and so multiply to really high numbers in the water, increasing the risk to anyone who puts their skin in the water.  (Not that protecting our own health is the only argument for making sure the welfare of these fish is good.)

So if the offer was made again for my next birthday (it’s in autumn – I am obviously not getting over-excited about it already…) would I take it up this year?

I don’t think so.  Not yet.  Not when so many of these fish are imported and we don’t fully know what they are carrying.  Just knowing there was a slight risk would mean I wasn’t very relaxed during my pedicure! :S


Released under a creative commons licence by jenny8lee


Verner-Jeffreys DW, Baker-Austin C, Pond MJ, Rimmer GSE, Kerr R, Stone D, Griffin R, White P, Stinton N, Denham K, Leigh J, Jones N, Longshaw M, & Feist SW (2012). Zoonotic Disease Pathogens in Fish Used for Pedicure Emerging Infectious Diseases DOI: 10.3201/eid1806.111782



One comment

  1. […] writes about the new fad of fish pedicures and zoonotic diseases. I have to admit that one day I’d like to try this but only if the conditions change. I do […]

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