The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals encourages Louisiana residents to exercise caution in swimming in natural bodies of water this summer, as one resident has died and three others have become ill from infections contracted after swimming in seawater along the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
In these four cases, swimmers' wounds were infected by Vibrio vulnificus, naturally occurring bacteria found in warm seawater that is sometimes referred to as flesh eating bacteria. While Louisiana's Gulf waters, lakes and rivers may be tempting for folks trying to cool off during summer vacation, these illnesses serve as reminders to take precautions when swimming in any natural body of water.
"We know people are venturing into our state's waterways to cool off this summer, so we advise them to be careful and exercise health precautions," DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert said. "We certainly do not mean to discourage people from enjoying water activities, but we want them to understand the potential risks involved. DHH works with other state and local partners to monitor and test beach water to inform residents of the water quality and we hope residents will heed posted beach advisories when they see them."
Illnesses associated with poor water quality include sore throat, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. Children, the elderly or people with weakened immune systems have a greater risk of getting sick when swimming in waters that harbor natural and man-made contaminants. Microorganisms can enter the body through the mouth, nose and ears, as well as through cuts and wounds. Therefore, swallowing the water or immersing one's head or wounds increases the risk of illness.
Some microorganisms occur naturally. Others come from human and animal waste. These enter the water from sewage overflows, polluted storm water runoff, sewage treatment plant malfunctions, urban and rural runoff after it rains, boating wastes, malfunctioning individual sewage treatment systems and agricultural runoff.
Each summer, DHH issues a "Swim at Your Own Risk" Advisory to warn residents about the inherent risk of swimming in the state's natural bodies of water.
"Most people can swim and enjoy the water without any problems or concerns," said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, state health officer. "But, contaminants can find their way into all waterways, so there is always a slight level of risk for infections, especially for those who have chronic illnesses."
Beach Water Testing
DHH's Beach Monitoring Program monitors quality for coastal waters in conjunction with the Department of Environmental Quality, the Louisiana Office of State Parks, Cameron Parish Police Jury, the town of Grand Isle and the Lafourche Parish Police Jury between May 1 and October 31. The program tests water at 25 beach sites along the Louisiana coast to determine whether the water quality meets the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000. The monitoring locations include Cypremort Point, Fontainebleau and Grand Isle state parks, Fourchon, Holly Beach, Rutherford, Martin, Long Beach (Dung), Little Florida, Gulf Breeze, Grand Isle, Elmer's Island, Constance, North and South beaches.
DHH collects water samples weekly from beach sites and analyzes them to see if high levels of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria are present. Signs posted at the beaches change each week to reflect the current water quality status at that location. That information is also posted on the DHH Beach Monitoring webpage.
Waterways used for recreational purposes are never risk-free, but there are several precautions people can take to reduce their risk of illness including:
DHH also reminds adults that they can protect themselves and children and reduce the risk of drowning by taking the following precautions:
Protecting Your Skin
Take precautions against sun exposure every day of the year, especially during midday hours (between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.), when UV rays are strongest and do the most damage. UV rays can reach you on cloudy days, and can reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow.