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Health officials remind swimmers about waterborne disease prevention

Swimming is a healthy summertime activity, but health officials remind swimmers that they can reduce the chance of getting a waterborne illness by adopting hygiene habits that keep germs out of the water. Hand-washing after using the restroom or changing diapers is one basic. Public pools such as the Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center in Willmar, shown here, have protocols they follow if there's a mishap or accidental exposure. (Tribune file photo)

WILLMAR -- What you don't see in the water could make you sick.

Health officials issued a well-timed reminder this past week urging swimmers to practice basic hygiene to avoid swapping waterborne germs.

It's a risk that many people may not be aware of, said Trisha Robinson, a Minnesota Department of Health epidemiologist specializing in waterborne diseases.

Swimmers may not get sick until days later, she said. "They don't always make the connection that it could be from the water."

In recent years, however, awareness has heightened of the potential for swimmers to spread germs through the water that lead to recreational water illnesses.

"It really has gotten a lot more attention," Robinson said.

The state Health Department said that from 2000 to 2011, there were 24 swimming pool outbreaks and 15 beach outbreaks reported in Minnesota, resulting in more than 900 people who became sick.

"It's not a totally uncommon event," said Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi County Public Health.

In the mid-1990s a swimming beach in Willmar was closed for two weeks after an outbreak of shigellosis; more than 50 people were affected, about half of whom became sick through secondary exposure to the bacteria.

There are no current outbreaks under investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health, Robinson said last week. "At this time we can fortunately say there is nothing that we are aware of."

But Minnesota can typically expect a couple of outbreaks each year, she said. Cryptosporidium, a waterborne parasite that's chlorine-resistant and can sometimes be found in swimming pools, is the most common cause of recreational water illnesses, she said.

Diarrhea -- sometimes severe -- is a frequent symptom associated with these illnesses, Robinson said. "People can get pretty sick, including hospitalization."

Health officials said swimmers can still enjoy the water, but they can reduce the chance of getting a waterborne illness by adopting hygiene habits that keep germs out of the water. Swimmers should shower with soap before swimming and avoid swallowing pool water or lake water.

Anyone with diarrhea should stay out of the water until they've recovered, Stehn said. "Keeping people out of the pool who are not feeling well is a great idea."

Health officials also advise thorough hand-washing after using the restroom or changing diapers, taking children on frequent bathroom breaks, changing diapers often and avoiding using the poolside or beachside for diaper changes.

"It's lots of simple steps," Robinson said.

Public pools have protocols they follow if there's a mishap or accidental exposure, Stehn said. "There are steps that they take for a process for superchlorinating."

Incidents don't always result in illness to swimmers or require reporting to the Minnesota Department of Health but they're tracked at each pool, she said.

Rarely, swimmers in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers can be exposed to another organism, the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, which multiplies in stagnant water when the weather is hot and water temperatures exceed 86 degrees F. The amoeba can enter the nose and travel to the brain, causing primary amoebic meningoencephalitis and often leading to death.

It's very rare for this to happen. State health officials note there's been only one confirmed case in Minnesota, in August 2010.

Swimming is still a healthy summertime activity but swimmers need to be aware of the risks associated with warm, stagnant water and to avoid swimming or diving there when it's been hot and the water level is low, Robinson said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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