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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Warning signs considered for Puna pond

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Neighbor Island Editor

Hawai'i County officials are meeting today to discuss whether to post warning signs at a popular saltwater pool in Puna where a bacterial infection killed an elderly man who went swimming there last year.

The widow of the 72-year-old California man who died after swimming in the pool said she might file a lawsuit if signs aren't posted.

The large pool, whose waters are warmed by underground volcanic sources, is next to the ocean at Ahalanui County Park.

On Feb. 26, 2001, Herbert Wiesenfeld of Carmel, Calif., died less than three days after swimming there.

A 77-year-old man who swam at the pool this past Oct. 30 became seriously ill but recovered.

The culprit in both cases was identified as vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium in the same family that causes cholera. V. vulnificus normally lives in warm seawater and can cause disease in those who eat contaminated shellfish or swim in seawater with an open wound.

V. vulnificus is a rare cause of disease in Hawai'i, said Dr. David Sasaki of the state Department of Health. Figures on the number of cases here were not immediately available. Nationally, most cases occur in the Gulf Coast states.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is likely the bacterial infection is underreported.

Among healthy people, the bacteria can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Sasaki said people with weakened immune systems are more suspectible. In those cases, V. vulnificus can infect the bloodstream, causing a life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, low blood pressure and blistering skin lesions. Bloodstream infections are fatal about 50 percent of the time.

State health director Bruce Anderson sent a Nov. 27 letter to Big Island Mayor Harry Kim advising the county to post signs warning swimmers that the water at Ahalanui County Park is not disinfected and that people with open wounds should not swim in thermal ponds because of the risk of bacterial infection.

He said the presence of V. vulnificus is not associated with pollution, and that it is not certain if conditions at the park encourage the growth of this particular bacterium. The health department hopes to conduct tests to assess whether the pond has an elevated level of the organism, Anderson said.

Hawai'i County managing director Dixie Kaetsu said yesterday the parks department and county attorneys will meet today to decide what action to take. She said officials are concerned about the recent cases, but she also pointed out that the bacteria "are out there in the environment generally, it's not just in this pond."

Eleanor Weber of Carmel, Calif., Wiesenfeld's widow, said she has been trying for a year to get officials to post signs at the park, which was acquired by the county about 10 years ago.

Weber, 72, said she and her husband were visiting a friend on the Big Island when they stopped at Ahalanui County Park. Within five minutes of entering the water, they felt a stinging sensation and realized tiny fish were nipping at them, she said. Wiesenfeld, a retired psychoanalyst, suffered from psoriasis, a chronic skin condition, and when he emerged from the water, his legs were covered with blood from where his scabs had been removed, she said.

The next morning he reported flu-like symptoms and his legs were swollen and red. As the day wore on he became disoriented and agitated, and that evening Weber took her husband to Hilo Medical Center. Despite heavy doses of antibiotics, he died the following night.

Weber said an emergency room nurse who heard where they had gone swimming said, " 'Oh my God. I forbid my family to go there.' You hear these words and see the man of your life literally leaving you right in front of your eyes." Weber said she initially was not interested in suing and only wants warning signs posted. But the yearlong delay in responding to her letters and phone calls may change her mind, "at least to honor my husband's death and save other lives."