Marine harmful algal blooms and human health: A systematic scoping review

Nick Young*, Richard A. Sharpe, Rosa Barciela, Gordon Nichols, Keith Davidson, Elisa Berdalet, Lora E. Fleming

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


Exposure to harmful algal blooms (HABs) can lead to well recognised acute patterns of illness in humans. The objective of this scoping review was to use an established methodology and the PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) reporting framework to map the evidence for associations between marine HABs and observed both acute and chronic human health effects. A systematic and reproducible search of publications from 1985 until May 2019 was conducted using diverse electronic databases. Following de-duplication, 5301 records were identified, of which 380 were included in the final qualitative synthesis. The majority of studies (220; 57.9%) related to Ciguatera Poisoning. Anecdotal and case reports made up the vast majority of study types (242; 63.7%), whereas there were fewer formal epidemiological studies (35; 9.2%). Only four studies related to chronic exposure to HABs. A low proportion of studies reported the use of human specimens for confirmation of the cause of illness (32; 8.4%). This study highlighted gaps in the evidence base including a lack of formal surveillance and epidemiological studies, limited use of toxin measurements in human samples, and a scarcity of studies of chronic exposure. Future research and policy should provide a baseline understanding of the burden of human disease to inform the evaluation of the current and future impacts of climate change and HABs on human health.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101901
JournalHarmful Algae
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research was funded in part by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Case PhD in Climate Change, Harmful Algal Blooms and Human Health ; the UK National Institute for Health Research Health Protection Research Unit (NIHR HPRU) in Environmental Change and Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in partnership with Public Health England (PHE) , and in collaboration with the University of Exeter , University College London , and the Met Office ; the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) and UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for the MEDMI Project ( ); and the European Union's Horizon 2020 , Grant/ Award Number: 774567 ( SOPHIE Project ) and 666773 ( BlueHealth Project ); UK Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) via the United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) under grant agreement reference NE/P021107/1 to the Blue Communities project ; and the UKRI grants OFF-Aqua BB/S004246/ , CAMPUS NE/R00675X/11 and the Atlantic Area Interreg project PRIMROSE . This paper contributes to the implementation of the objectives of the IOC-SCOR GlobalHAB international programme ( ) concerning HABs and Human Health .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors


  • Ciguatera Poisoning
  • Harmful algal bloom
  • Marine toxins
  • Population health
  • Shellfish poisoning


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