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Denman Island man’s infection from rare bacteria raising questions

Graeme Johnston was likely exposed in ocean after suffering leg wound, says wife
Graeme Johnston of Denman Island has been very ill after exposure to bacteria more typically found in tropical waters. Photo supplied

A leg injury followed by a dip in the ocean became a matter of life and limb for a Denman Island man this summer.

Graeme Johnston was out for a walk in the woods with the dog in mid-July when he impaled his leg with a stick and had to remove it from a two-inch wound.

He had the wound treated, was given antibiotics and told to stay out of the water for a few days. After this time, he waded into Baynes Sound, and that’s when the trouble started.

“His leg started getting sore and it was getting red,” said his wife Edina. “You could definitely tell he was going downhill really fast.”

Her husband started feeling ill, developing symptoms similar to sepsis and septicaemia, so he went to the hospital. After leaving, he was required to come back for intravenous antibiotics.

After three days, they reassessed him in the ER and he was readmitted. The BC Centre for Disease Control had come back with the diagnosis of a bacteria known as Shewanella. Edina Johnston now wants to know why there is not more information about the potential for serious infection from this bacteria. She started researching it online but had trouble finding good information for B.C. or Canada.

“I’ve been looking and looking, and there’s nothing,” she said.

Her husband is 70 but is a member of the local volunteer fire department and otherwise healthy and active. Now, he’s lucky to be alive. Amputation has also been a possibility, his wife adds.

“It was fairly serious for sure,” she said.

He went home for a bit, but Johnston says her husband is back in the hospital again after the oral antibiotics did not seem to work.

Part of the problem might be the fact that Shewanella is not something one would expect to find in waters around Vancouver Island. Johnston has been in touch with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which inspects the waters of Baynes Sound. A biologist told her DFO’s responsibility is to direct someone to a doctor if they might have been exposed to a waterborne pathogen. As far as testing or notifying the public, she was informed this responsibility rests with health officials.

Island Health confirmed with the Record that Shewanella is not designated as a “reportable disease.” The term refers to communicable diseases that health officials must report if they know or have reason to believe someone has the disease.

If Shewanella is not a household word, it has been the subject of research. One study in the Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology described Shewanella algae as an “emerging marine zoonotic pathogen and accounts for considerable mortality or morbidity in compromised hosts.” However, a paper in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene looks at 16 cases in Martinique and provides a review of available literature. According to the abstract, Shewanella bacteria make up marine microflora in warm climates but are rarely pathogenic – typically causing disease to a host. It adds though that infections are increasingly being reported.

Another study in the Journal of Travel Medicine outlines a case of a man with chronic foot ulcers exposed to Shewanella in seawater on a Caribbean vacation and suggests travellers with skin lesions minimize direct contact with water. Still another paper notes that Shewanella algae can tolerate a range of temperatures and water salinity levels.

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Back on Denman, Johnston ran across another island resident who experienced the same problems as her husband a couple of years ago. The man had exposed a wound to seawater in the hopes it would act as an antiseptic, but instead he became seriously ill.

If Shewanella is not supposed to be showing up in local waters, Johnston is now considering whether the bacteria might have been part of a discharge from a foreign freighter’s bilge into B.C. waters and managed to find the right climate in Baynes Sound. All Johnston can do for now is speculate about what happened and wonder whether she will start hearing about similar cases in the future.

“I guess it’s just where we’re going,” she said.

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