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Puna ‘hot pond’ reopened following flesh-eating infection incident


HILO >> Hawaii County park officials are reopening a “hot pond” in lower Puna after tests showed it contained no elevated levels of certain dangerous bacteria.

The county closed the Ahalanui Park pond for about a week after a Maui man said he contracted a rare, flesh-eating disease after swimming in it.

Steve Johnson, 70, said he believes he contracted the infection as a result of entering the pond with an open wound on his leg. Signs at the park warn against swimming with open wounds, but Johnson said he didn’t see them.

The lagoon, which is separated from the ocean by a wall with a narrow opening, has been known to foster bacteria growth due to its warm temperatures.

State officials tested for bacteria — enterococcus and clostridium — that are indicators of human sewage, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported.

Johnson’s infection was caused by other types of bacteria — streptococcus and staphylococcus — but these are difficult to test for because they live naturally in the environment, said Gary Gill, deputy director of the Hawaii Department of Health.

It would be impossible to tell where the bacteria that infected Johnson’s leg originated, but Gill said it was likely already present on his skin.

“It’s never a good idea to go swimming with open cuts. Staph lives naturally on your skin. When you go into water, your skin swells up, and it opens up your pores, making your cut more susceptible to infection,” Gill said.

Johnson lost several layers of skin on his right leg, in various spots from the top of his foot to his thigh. He underwent skin graft surgery Sept. 27 to repair some of the damage.

He was released from Hilo Medical Center on Thursday after spending almost a month there.

Johnson said he won’t go back to the pond, regardless of whether his infection came from the water.

“I just want to get the word out. Don’t go there. You’re taking your life in your hands if you do,” he said. Johnson believes authorities need to perform more extensive tests on the water.

The pond is regularly tested for enterococcus and clostridium, and the results are posted the state Health Department’s Clean Water Branch website.

Hawaii County Parks and Recreation Department spokesman Jason Armstrong said the department is studying whether it can improve its signs to help keep people safe.

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