WHITE LAKE — A possible link between a recent outbreak of rashes and swimming at White Lake is being investigated by health and environmental officials.
During the week of July 4, around 20 people who visited and went into the lake reported to the Environmental Health Agency that they had broken out in a rash that resembled chicken pox. While both children and adults have been affected, the rash has been more common in the former, possibly because children are more likely to spend extended time in the water than adults.
“Our assumption is that it is something commonly referred to as ‘swimmer’s itch,’ which is caused by microscopic organisms in freshwater ponds and lakes,” said Bladen County Health and Human Services Director David Howard.
The parasite that causes swimmer’s itch, also known as cercarial dermatitis, lives on water fowl and, when the animals swim in the water, it can be transmitted there.
“The parasite almost immediately dies,” Howard reassured, “but it does cause a reaction by the body’s immune system in its process of attacking the parasite and beginning the healing process.”
Two other possible culprits are enterrococcus and pseudomonas, bacteria which are both known to cause rashes.
One report from a parent said that her child’s doctor had a culture sample taken from the skin rash and sent to a lab, which did not find high levels of any bacteria, which is why, Howard said, they are leaning toward swimmer’s itch as the culprit.
Just to make sure, though, water samples have been sent to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services for analysis, and a report was expected either Friday or the early part of next week.
“Our assessment so far in dealing with this is that it’s a common issue that has the potential to crop up in heavily used bodies of water, especially when the water reaches a high temperature,” said Howard, noting that both of those conditions were present during the week of July 4.
Howard reported that those that have been affected have received varying diagnoses from doctors, but that each case, as far as he knows, has cleared up easily with over-the-counter or prescription medications, usually in five to seven days, depending on the individual’s sensitivity to the parasite.
“We haven’t confirmed if the skin rashes are connected to the water, but we are looking into it,” he said.
Until that time, Howard said that they are not issuing any type of warning against swimming.
“While the rash is an irritant,” he said, “we haven’t heard any signs of serious issues, like GI problems, which could indicate ecoli, for instance, or respiratory problems or viral infections that we could link to the lake.”
While the suspected cause may be common, Howard is not taking chances. He has had conversations with the Division of Environmental Quality at the state level; the state veterinarian; the Wildlife Division, which manages the lake; and the Town of White Lake.
In addition, he reported that conversations have been started with the Division of Water Resources, which routinely checks lake quality and frequently receives calls about the clarity of the lake, and the above-mentioned organizations, to put their heads together and see if color of the lake and health issues are in any way related, though Howard was quick to point out that there is nothing to make them suspect that such is the case.
“We have to hold hands, and learn what they are learning,” he said. “There is the potential to look at longer term ideas for any solutions, but right now, it’s hard to control what looks at this point to be swimmer’s itch.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.