State officials: Windsor Pond safe for swimming, severe skin reaction is 'isolated incident'
WINDSOR — The state's chief epidemiologist says there is no reason to worry about a parasite in Windsor Pond (Duke's Pond) that a North Adams man and his partner say is responsible for his hospitalization for a severe skin infection — a scare that prompted a weeklong shutdown of the pond late last month.
Alfred DeMaria, medical director of the Bureau of Infectious Diseases at the Department of Public Health, told The Eagle a microscopic parasite known to cause cercarial dermatitis — commonly known as "swimmer's itch" — cannot survive in human tissue and dies upon contact as the immune system kicks it away.
But it is this death on a human host that can create an allergic reaction that causes a rash, DeMaria said. Rarely, he added, the rash — like any rash on any person — could become infected if the skin is broken by scratching and bacteria enters.
DeMaria said the parasite, found in the feces of waterfowl and some other mammals, is carried by snails in freshwater lakes and ponds.
"It can occur anywhere if [the water] is warm enough and the birds are infected," he said. "And birds migrate."
It all began at the end of July when Maureen O'Hearn's photos of Michael Girard's blistering skin rash began circulating on Facebook. Girard, 53, told The Eagle that since the July 28 fishing trip to the pond, he has been to the emergency room at Berkshire Medical Center four times and admitted once. He was just released, he said, and continues to experience excruciating pain, with blisters from the waist down and some on his arms.
The posts were widely shared, and Girard, who said he's fished there for 35 years, said he's sure it was the parasites at the semi-private Windsor Pond — also known as Duke's Pond — that did this to him.
Town officials closed the pond and began investigating. They reopened the pond a week later after learning that there is no danger to the public, they said, and that the Girard's severe infection was an isolated case in someone who had other health issues, according to Joseph Pfeifer, a trauma surgeon at Berkshire Medical Center who is also on the Windsor Board of Health.
"The gentleman has serious underlying medical issues and had a particularly bad reaction to this," Pfeifer said. "It's a one-off, very unusual. This [parasite] is part of life and living on a freshwater pond with lots of waterfowl."
DeMaria, however, said while he didn't know the specifics of the case, he didn't think skin reactions would be worse in someone whose immune system was compromised, since it is the healthy system that starts a more robust reaction.
Girard said he has been disabled for the last few years from pulmonary arterial hypertension and polycythemia, and is in remission from throat cancer.
His doctors, he and O'Hearn said, say his other conditions have nothing to do with this acute dermatitis.
As a result of Girard's severe condition, Pfeifer said he and board Chairwoman Susan Jacobs made phone calls to numerous public health and other officials to get a handle on the parasite in question and what is usually a rash that he said was more common in the Midwest.
"If you talk to people in the Midwest they'll say, `Oh yeah, we always got this when we were kids.'"
Either it's rare here, he said, or it may be that people generally don't report or seek medical attention for what is usually a mild rash that goes away in two to three days.
Pfeifer said he also spoke to a scientist at the Wall Experiment Station, a laboratory of the state Department of Environmental Protection, who told him in 26 years at the lab, a case of swimmer's itch never came to his attention, and that there are no state labs that test for the parasite.
Pfeifer said using petroleum or a creamy barrier on the skin is a way to prevent it. The key, he said is not to let the water dry on the skin — that's how the parasites can try to attach to the skin "very superficially" before they die because they can only live in birds.
The Centers for Disease Control's website, which Pfeifer also consulted, says if the rash is uncomfortable it can be eased with typical anti-itch treatments including colloidal oatmeal and Epsom salt soaks, as well as corticosteroid creams and cold compresses.
Both Pfeifer and DeMaria said they are more concerned about infectious diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks.
"Because those are active infections," DeMaria said.
Pfeifer said that at an emergency Select Board meeting Monday, he and Jacobs shared everything they had learned with residents who — according to one person who attended but did not want to be identified — were being stirred by a growing "hysteria."
"I think it alleviated a lot of anxiety," Pfeifer said. "But [O'Hearn] continues to share the photos [on Facebook]."
"It was all new to us," Jacobs said, noting that the town distributed a two-page flier about the parasite for residents and posted information on the town's Facebook page. She said things had calmed down for a bit, but started up again recently.
"We thought we were past it when we reopened the pond, but [O'Hearn] put more photos [of the rash] on Facebook and it reignited the fire," Jacobs added, noting it as the reason for the emergency meeting.
Jacobs also said no one else has come forward with symptoms of the rash. O'Hearn said she knew of others with less severe reactions, but could not remember names, as they were people who had contacted her through Facebook. The Eagle is still attempting to contact others who have swimmer's itch after using the pond.
Although Girard's case appears isolated, Jacobs said she had loads of sympathy.
"It doesn't stop us from feeling really bad for him," she said.
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.
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