Swimming with a tiny cut on the leg should not mean a life-threatening bacterial skin infection and four month of medical treatment. But it did for Bernie Voith, who had to call 911 after taking a dip in a tributary to the Severn River in Maryland.
Hauling a boat out of the water and getting a scrape on the thumb should not lead to a terrifying battle with waterborne bacteria. But tell that to Joe Stover (pictured at left), who was hospitalized for 10 days because of an infection he contracted at a boat ramp in Newport News, Va.
These are just two of the human stories featured in a new report released today by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) called “Bad Water 2009: The Impact on Human Health in the Chesapeake Bay Region.”
The report’s conclusion is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must do more to enforce federal clean water laws, not only to protect fish in the Chesapeake Bay – but also to help protect swimmers and boaters from potentially dangerous pathogens.
An aspect of the report that is receiving a lot of attention from the media (see stories by The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Richmond Times Dispatch, Philadelphia Inquirer, Annapolis Capital, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Salisbury (Maryland) Daily Times, Associated Press, WBAL, WTOP, WVEC and 44 other television stations), concerns a rise in the number of reported infections from Vibrio, a salt-water bacterium that can cause life-threatening skin and blood infections and intestinal illnesses.
Data from Bay region state health departments, compiled by CBF, show a rise in the number of reported Vibrio infections over the last decade. Virginia had 12 reported cases of Vibrio infections in 1999, and 30 in 2008, according to the report. Maryland had 18 reported infections in 2001, and 33 in 2008, although a change in reporting requirements in that state in 2003 could have contributed to the rise there.
The CBF report quotes from leading scientists and provides a detailed account of how one recreational boater – a 67-year-old real-estate broker from Newport News, Va. – was hospitalized after a life-threatening Vibrio infection made his hand swell up to the size of a catcher’s mitt. “It really brought to my attention how important it is that we pay attention to our water, and how dirty our water is,” boater Joe Stover says in the report.
But a penetrating report by Frank Delano in today’s Fredericksburg (Va.) Freelance Star took the Vibrio investigation a step further. Delano interviewed four watermen who overcame harrowing battles with Vibrio infections.
More importantly, the article featured an interview with a Virginia physician, Dr. Lloyd T. Griffith, who has treated watermen and others for nearly a half century and has seen a significant change in infections.
"In the old days, we saw intensely, rapidly reproducing staph and strep infections that were usually caused by injuries. Sulfur drugs and penicillin were usually very effective in treating them," Dr. Griffith says in the article.
"This more exotic stuff like Vibrio just wasn't there. The invasive infections we're seeing now are a mark of the very septic quality of our tidewaters," he said.
"The Chesapeake Bay is a living culture of just about any microorganism or pathogen," Griffith said. "It's a veritable biological soup of viruses, bacteria and protozoa. The waters pose a very significant health risk,” according to the article.
The number of annual Vibrio infections remains very small. But a former director of the National Science Foundation, Dr. Rita Colwell, says in the CBF report that the growing number of reported illnesses and deaths caused by Vibrio are a warning sign that the Bay’s ecosystem is being thrown out of balance by nutrient pollution and global warming, both of which can contribute to the growth of Vibrio bacteria.
This is another reason why it is critically important that the EPA step up and take more aggressive steps to control nutrient pollution from a variety of sources, including sewage treatment plants, streets, farms and septic tanks and industries.
Any thoughts, Bay Daily readers? Have you or any members of your family experienced any infections from swimming in the Bay or its tributaries? Do you think more research is needed into the public health implications of high bacteria levels and pollutants in our waterways?