2011-08-18 / Front Page

E. Coli Outbreak Closes Lake At Cowans Gap

Bacteria affects 11 swimmers
By Chanin Rotz-Mountz

Children counting down the days until the new school year gets under way Monday at many Fulton County school districts may find themselves unable to take that last dip at the ever popular Cowans Gap Lake due to an outbreak of the E. coli virus.

The state park initially closed the 42-acre lake to visitors on July 20 after having tested the water at the south beach to find bacteria levels had risen to 600 parts per liter. Fortunately, the lake reopened the very next day when bacteria levels dropped significantly to only 12 parts per liter. A typical or average high bacteria reading is 235 parts per liter.

Rumors of illness had been circulating about the community since that time, with many of those stories involving children falling ill with bouts of diarrhea and vomiting after swimming at the lake. Last Monday official reports emerged that several cases involving E. coli contamination or related illnesses were being investigated by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

In reacting to the news, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) announced last Tuesday afternoon the lake had been closed for recreational use until further notice. The following morning an advisory posted on the park’s Web site stated, “All water activities including swimming, wading, boating and fishing is prohibited until further notice. We are doing this to insure we have safe water in the lake for recreational activities. The park will remain open for camping, cabins, pavilions and all other recreational activities.”

Testing of state-owned lakes and pools is conducted twice weekly. According to DCNR Secretary Richard Allan, regular testing of the lake waters throughout the summer months indicates there was no danger to swimmers. In fact, Allan noted that since 2006 only one sampling resulted in a one-day closing of the lake’s two beaches.

“We take these cases very seriously,” said Department of Health Secretary Dr. Eli Avila during the lake closure announcement. “Investigating how the outbreak occurred is a top priority for us.”

As part of the investigation, testing was ongoing at the park last week. Among the tests was a dye test of the park’s sewage system that did not reveal any infiltration of sewage into the clean water sources at the park. In addition, samples are being taken from a variety of sources such as the lake water and sediment, drinking water, wash houses and concession stands to determine the source of the outbreak. Outside food vendors are also being tested.

Both the lake water and sediment samples have been sent to laboratories overseen by the Department of Environmental Protection for testing. It is unknown when results will be made available.

DCNR press secretary Terry Brady has stated there is no current evidence that potable water in the park has played a role in the E. coli 0157:H7 problem. E. coli contamination can come from contact with human or animal feces, either by direct contact or by eating or drinking what has come into contact with the feces. In addition, E. coli can also occur if meat is not properly processed or cooked or through raw fruits and vegetables.

Symptoms of E. coli include bloody diarrhea, cramps, vomiting and nausea. The illness is most prevalent among children but has been known to affect all ages.

The number of confirmed cases continued to rise throughout the week and has peaked at 11. All but one of the cases involve a child.

The actual source of the outbreak is not yet known, but the common denominator in the cases appears to be that the infected individuals swam in the lake between July 12 and July 31. Many of those individuals were reported being in the water during the July 30-31 weekend.

Several of the individuals having been infected with E. coli are reportedly being treated for a complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS. HUS is found in 5 to 15 percent of people with the E. coli 0157:H7 infection and can result in anemia and kidney damage.

Anyone who was in the water at Cowans Gap lake during the last month and has experienced diarrhea or other symptoms of E. coli is encouraged to contact their local healthcare provider or the state Department of Health by calling 877-724-3258.

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