Officials warning Long Lake beach-goers following outbreak of swimmer’s itch
MADAWASKA, Maine — After an outbreak of swimmer’s itch struck visitors to Birch Point Beach on Long Lake over the weekend, officials from the town of Madawaska and Maine Department of Environmental Protection are alerting the public to the risk of infection.
Microscopic parasite in the feces of waterfowl or other wildlife cause Cercarial dermatitis, also known as swimmer’s itch, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. The parasite can move under the skin of swimmers or others playing in affected areas, causing a pimply, itchy rash or welts.
During an outing at the beach with her family Sunday afternoon, Madawaska resident Julie Guglielmo noticed one of her six children scratching her legs between running in and out of the water. Shortly afterward, four of the other children were scratching as well.
“I grew up on the lake, and swimmer’s itch is nothing new,” Guglielmo said. Still, she was “surprised to have such a severe case of it this early in the year.”
She said she usually makes the children towel off immediately after coming out of the water and showering as soon as they arrive home, but this time, her daughter started itching before they were even done swimming.
There were a few other families in the area that day who later shared on Facebook that their children also caught swimmer’s itch. While it is uncertain how many, if any, of the families went to the doctor for the itchy ailment, Guglielmo handled the swimmer’s itch head-on.
“We knew what it was,” she said. Guglielmo used baby wipes as a temporary remedy before her family members could make it home to shower. However, by the time they come home, she said all of the children were itchy and miserable. Once there, she also used anti-itch cream, wipes and lotion.
“Because it was such a heavy case, [the kids] were pretty miserable for a couple of days, especially at night,” she said.
Officials had left the beach open as of Friday afternoon, but local officials posted a sign at the beach to alert visitors and issued a public service announcement on the town’s Facebook page Tuesday indicating they were aware of several cases of swimmer’s itch from area residents who spent time in the water at the public beach.
Swimmer’s itch is not uncommon and occurs in lakes, ponds, and oceans throughout the world, according to the CDC.
Adult parasites live in the blood of infected animals such as ducks or geese, and produce eggs that are passed in the feces of infected birds or mammals, the CDC states. If the eggs land in or are washed into the water, the eggs hatch and microscopic larvae swim around in search of a certain species of aquatic snail to further develop.
Although humans are not suitable hosts, some larvae burrow into the skin when coming into contact with a swimmer, sometimes causing an allergic reaction and rash, according to the CDC.
“Because these larvae cannot develop inside a human, they soon die,” the CDC states.
Madawaska Town Manager Gary Picard said the problem is not new and has occurred in other towns and at the popular Birch Point Beach before.
He said town officials did not test the water, but made the assumption it was swimmer’s itch after seeing comments from area residents on Facebook about the itching they were experiencing.
“If there is testing to be done,” Picard said. “It is up to the state, it’s in the state’s jurisdiction.”
The town manager also said he was aware of various complaints from some who say the outbreak is related to a sewage leak in St. Agatha in April 2017 that spilled into Long Lake. He said that the sewage leak was long ago, however, and that the town of St. Agatha had followed all of the necessary procedures to resolve that issue with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Nick Archer, DEP regional director, said Thursday that “the infections are not being caused by the sewage that was dumped last spring. Not a chance.”
“[The town] did exactly what they should’ve done,” Archer said, referring to Madawaska posting the beach to alert visitors about the potential for swimmer’s itch. He added that part of the problem involves people who feed and attract the ducks that carry the parasite.
“The ducks do what they do and humans are also the problem for feeding the ducks,” he said. “Don’t feed the ducks.”
While there is no official way to prevent swimmer’s itch, several officials, including members of the Madawaska Ambulance Service, have put out statements on Facebook urging people to refrain from feeding the ducks and to take other precautions such as avoiding busy beaches and making sure to towel dry — not drip dry.
The CDC states on its website that there is no way of knowing how long an area may remain affected but the water will not always be unsafe.
“Many factors must be present for swimmer’s itch to become a problem in water,” the CDC states. “Since these factors change (sometimes within a swim season), swimmer’s itch will not always be a problem.”
Guglielmo said that after five days, her children had finally stopped itching.
“We have not sworn off lake swimming, but we will be more selective of location and practice extra precaution knowing that it’s out there,” she said.
Follow Morgan Mitchell on Twitter @TheMaineMorgan