Hot pond to reopen after flesh-eating disease scare


By COLIN M. STEWART

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Parks officials announced Thursday afternoon that the “hot pond” at Ahalanui Park in lower Puna was scheduled to reopen at 7 a.m. this morning.

The popular recreation area has been closed since Thursday, Sept. 26, to allow testing of the water after a Maui man was reported to have contracted a rare, flesh-eating disease after swimming in the pond.

Steve Johnson, 70, was released from Hilo Medical Center on Thursday morning after spending almost an entire month there, he said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

“I was in for about 29 days. A long damn time,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m feeling a little shaky, but not too bad. My leg is still in the process of healing.”

Johnson lost several layers of skin on his right leg — in various spots from the top of his foot to his thigh — from an infection caused by a combination of the streptococcus and staphyloccocus bacteria, according to the state Department of Health. Last Friday, he underwent skin graft surgery to repair some of the damage done to his leg.

Johnson said last week he believed he had contracted the infection as a result of entering the volcanically heated pond at Ahalanui with an open wound on his leg, which he got while climbing off his bicycle to retrieve a lilikoi. Signs posted at the park warn against swimming with open wounds, or by people with weakened immune systems. Johnson says he never saw them.

The lagoon, which is separated from the ocean by a wall with a narrow opening, has been known to foster the growth of bacteria due to its warmer temperatures.

In an interview Thursday, Hawaii Department of Health Deputy Director Gary Gill said that his department’s testing, performed during the last week, showed no elevated levels of dangerous bacteria in the pond.

“We tested for enterococcus and clostridium, the two (bacteria) we use as indicators of possible human sewage input. They aren’t the pathogens that make people sick, but they are indicators of their presence,” he said. “We also ran samples for vibrio, which can cause infections in an ocean environment.”

He added that in Johnson’s case, the infection was caused by the streptococcus and staphylococcus bacteria, which are difficult to test for because they “live naturally in the environment.”

“It’s never a good idea to go swimming with open cuts. Staph lives naturally on your skin. When you go into water, your skin swells up, and it opens up your pores, making your cut more susceptible to infection,” he said.

Ultimately, Gill said, it would be impossible to tell where the bacteria that infected Johnson’s leg came from, but that it was likely the bacteria had already been present on his skin.

“I would say that is likely,” he said. “Staph infections normally come from swimmers sharing towels or not maintaining their cuts. When you’re in the water you might get a cut that later gets infected, and that doesn’t necessarily indicate that the water had the pathogen.”

Regardless of whether his infection came from the water in the pond or not, Johnson said that after swimming there a dozen or so times in the past, he won’t be going back.

“I just want to get the word out. Don’t go there. You’re taking your life in your hands if you do,” he said. “I just believe they need to run more extensive tests than they have been doing.”

The pond is regularly tested for enterococcus and clostridium, and the results are posted for the public on the Hawaii Health Department’s Clean Water Branch website, http://health.hawaii.gov/cwb, under the Water Quality Data link near the bottom of the page.

County of Hawaii Department of Parks and Recreation spokesman Jason Armstrong said Thursday that the department was thankful for the public’s patience and understanding as officials worked to determine the safety of the pond. He added that the department is considering ways to further protect the public at Ahalanui Park.

“We’re taking a look to make sure we can better inform people,” he said. “We’re looking at our signage and notifications to see how they can be improved so that we can keep people safe. That may be more signs, or different placement of signs, or different wording, or a combination of all that. We’re working with the health department to determine that.”

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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