The Louisiana Department of Health 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," LDH 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. LDH 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, LDH 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.
LDH 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 LDH 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:
- Do not swim near a drainage pipe or in a ditch, or near runoff or littered areas.
- Do not swim in areas with warnings against swimming.
- Avoid swimming after heavy rains.
- Avoid ingesting or swallowing the water.
- Minimize immersing your head when swimming.
- Avoid swimming with an open cut, wound or skin infection.
- Shower after swimming.
LDH also reminds adults that they can protect themselves and children and reduce the risk of drowning by taking the following precautions:
- Always have adult supervision when people are in or around the water. This is especially important for children and people who have seizure disorders or other medical conditions that could cause them to lose consciousness.
- Never swim alone. Always swim with a buddy.
- Take swimming lessons.
- Learn CPR.
- Do not use air-filled or foam toys in place of life jackets.
- Use alcohol responsibly around water and avoid its use entirely when supervising children.
- Teach children to never run, push or jump on others around water.
- Keep a phone near the pool or other water body, along with rescue equipment, such as a life preserver and a shepherd's hook -- a long pole with a hook at the end swimmers can grab to be pulled out of the water if in distress.
- Ensure that pools are surrounded by a fence at least four feet high. Pool gates should self-close and self-latch at a height small children can't reach.
- You should never dive into water until you are 100 percent certain it is deep enough. Shallow water, underwater logs, big rocks or other debris are all dangerous when you are diving into the Gulf, rivers, lakes or swimming holes. Diving head first can cause serious injury.
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.
- Seek shade, especially during midday hours.
- Cover up with clothing to protect exposed skin.
- Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade the face, head, ears, and neck.
- Wear sunglasses that wrap around and block as close to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays as possible.
- Put on sunscreen with broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection and sun protective factor (SPF) 15 or higher.
- Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps. The UV rays from them are as dangerous as the UV rays from the sun.