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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Bacteria draw attention of UH scientists

 •  Celebrating a connector of people

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

UH graduate student Olivia Nigro, professor Grieg Steward and boat captain Joe Reich took samples from the Ala Wai harbor yesterday. "Primarily we want to get a census which of the vibrios are present and are they associated with clinical disease or not?" Steward said.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Debris still floats on the water at Ala Wai harbor. Lack of water circulation in the harbor makes it a prime spot for bacteria growth.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Spurred by the death of Oliver Johnson, University of Hawai'i scientists yesterday began taking samples at 12 sites in and around the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor and the Ala Wai Canal in an effort to address the state's environmental question of the moment:

What is the extent of the dangerous vibrio bacteria in Hawai'i waters, and how might they have grown and spread as a result of heavy rains and the dumping of 48 million gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal at the end of March?

The Honolulu medical examiner determined Johnson died of multisystem organ failure due to septic shock brought on by a Vibrio vulnificus infection in the foot, with a contributing cause of alcoholic liver disease.

The UH scientists have been very interested in vibrio bacteria for a number of years and have a project in Kane'ohe Bay. They also started one at Lake Pont-chartrain in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to look at bacteria levels and deaths in Louisiana from the bacteria.

Results from their Ala Wai testing will be shared with the state Health Department as soon as they are available.

"Most of the research on vibrio was done originally in Tokyo Bay and Chesapeake Bay, but they're colder, and in the winter their water temperatures are below 10 degrees (Celsius, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit) and vibrio disappears," said UH microbiologist Roger Fujioka. "But with our climate, coastal water temperatures stay constant at about 24 degrees (Celsius, about 75 degrees Fahrenheit) ... so they never disappear. So I assumed we'd be getting more problems with vibrio, which is why we've had this ongoing project."

Results of the test for the canal, harbor and other nearby areas won't be known for a month or two, said Grieg Steward, professor of oceanography at the University of Hawai'i, who is also working on the project.

"Primarily we want to get a census which of the vibrios are present and are they associated with clinical disease or not? And we want to map the distribution," Steward said.

"If we see a trend and see really high levels in the canal, and you have water from Palolo and Manoa streams, and the flow tends to be toward the yacht harbor, and the counts are really high in the harbor, it would suggest there's a source there," he said.

But Steward said it's very difficult to tease out the source of the bacteria that killed Johnson.

"There's no way to pinpoint or blame the sewage per se," he said. "Anytime you get an open wound exposed to this water, you have to clean it out quickly. We saw the effects after Katrina when several people exposed to the floodwaters died."

"These are similar situations. If you look at the people who died, all were immuno-compromised individuals. It's not clear that pollution from the floodwaters was the problem."

However, he said, "sewage could certainly affect its dynamic increasing its abundance or shifting from one to another dominant strain."

Steward said he doesn't believe there are any particular health guidelines for vibrios because they are marine organisms.

"Normally what are monitored are sewage indicators," he said.

Vibrio is not associated with sewage, but sewage can serve as a nutrient to create a bloom of the bacteria, he said.

Fujioka said New Orleans' Lake Pontchartrain is also home to Vibrio vulnificus. "The prevalence is much higher than in Hawai'i," he said. "Just because their lake conditions are good for it."

Fujioka said that 20 to 30 people die from this bacteria in the United States every year, "but they usually have liver problems or are immuno-compromised.

"If you're healthy, you can become infected but it's usually not life-threatening," he said. "The problem is more related to the person getting the disease. They always have some other health problem before getting the disease."

The scientists are also looking at the cycling of Ala Wai Boat Harbor water as part of their investigation of the bacteria and how they might have grown and spread.

"The harbor is like a cul de sac," said Fujioka. "It moves with the tide, but very little. It's a stagnant area, and it allows for high nutrients and things to grow."

As for the harbor, "it's one of those contaminated sites," Fujioka said. "The reason is the water cannot flush out. It's a high-risk site."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.