82 Become Sick from Golf Course Water
The Arizona Republic | August 15, 2002
by Judd Slivka, The Arizona Republic
The 82 people who became sick after a golf tournament in south Phoenix last month are believed to have contracted nothing more exotic than a common stomach virus, Maricopa County health officials said Wednesday.
But an investigation spurred by the illnesses and the death of a 15-year-old Ahwatukee Foothills boy uncovered a new, widespread health threat: 65 percent of golf courses in the county inspected by health officials in the past few weeks had the same inadequate water-handling practices that led to the outbreak.
The people who got sick July 16-25 after a youth golf tournament at the Thunderbirds Golf Course contracted a Norwalk-type virus. It is similar to the illness that sickened scores of people on river trips through the Grand Canyon earlier this summer.
Officials believe the virus was spread through contaminated water and ice in the golf course's coolers.
Three of eight stool samples from people who got sick tested positive for the virus at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab, said Dr. Jonathan Weisbuch, director of the Maricopa County Public Health Department.
Tissue samples from Nils Beeman, the 15-year-old who was found dead in his parents' bathroom July 19 after several days of golfing, did not test positive for the virus.
"That doesn't mean that he didn't have it," Weisbuch said. "It just means they couldn't find it."
The water-spread "golfer's sickness" is a first for county health officials and perhaps in the nation. There is no medical literature describing anything like this happening on the links.
"We never even considered golf courses might be a problem," Weisbuch said.
Once county health officials suspected that water and ice in coolers were to blame, they embarked on a survey of the 157 golf courses in the county. Through Wednesday, 148 courses had been inspected; only 35 percent of them had in place the safe water-handling procedures released by county officials last week.
The guidelines included disinfecting water containers every day; filling containers and coolers away from contaminants such as dust and insects; and making sure that water and ice come from municipal water systems or a health department-approved filtration system.
Some of the requirements are simple things, such as not using a garden hose or a hose that had been on the ground to fill water containers.
"We had some facilities out there that were severely challenged," said Dave Ludwig, manager of the county's environmental health division.
All of the courses that weren't approved began immediately changing their practices. Those that were approved had bottled water, drinking fountains or a sanitary water system already in place.
More lab tests are pending for Beeman, although the county medical examiner has ruled that the immediate cause of death was choking on his own vomit.
The first recorded case of the virus at the golf course came from a course employee on July 16. Officials said they weren't sure if he contaminated the water supply or if he merely drank contaminated water.
"Did the employee get sick after drinking the water, or did he make other people sick? We'll never know," Weisbuch said.
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