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September 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Transferred by the Rinse Tank: A Nasty Case of Conjunctivitis

from the September, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Daniel Olsson, a professor of emergency medicine at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y., was getting some dive time in at a medical conference in Fiji when he got a nasty case of pink eye, or conjunctivitis. When 13 fellow attendees, nearly half of the entire group, also caught the nasty infection, he knew it was no fluke.

The conference was held in 2006 at Wananavu Beach Resort on the island of Viti Levu. The 29 attendees took day dives from Kai Viti Divers’ two boats and used the communal container to store their masks. On the second dive day, several divers complained of ear pain. On day three, four people developed eye problems. Additional cases accumulated during the next two days, totaling 14. The source of the outbreak was a local divemaster who reported having an eye infection for a number of days prior to the outbreak, and admitted placing his own mask in the communal container. As divers moved between boats, they mingled their infected masks, even though Kai Viti Divers supposedly washed them all nightly.

Kai Viti and Wananavu staff immediately got bleach and detergent to clean the boats, and the divers got antibiotics and recovered after returning home. But Olsson found out later that his peers’ outbreak coincided with a general outbreak of acute conjunctivitis occurring in Fiji at the same time; excessive numbers of cases had been reported in Viti Levu alone. He later summed up the incident in a research study for the May issue of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine Journal.

“I was dismayed that Kai Viti and Wananavu were not more aware of the outbreak, but they did everything we asked of them to control it,” Olsson told Undercurrent. That’s why divers need to take it upon themselves and check for potential health hazards in the countries they’re visiting, he says. The Centers for Disease Control has a Travelers’ Health Web site with pages for every country about what to know about medically before going there (www.cdc.gov/travel). “It’s also a good idea to consult a travel medicine physician about what vaccines to have and antibiotics to take.”

As for staying clear of infections like conjunctivitis, the best thing to do is to keep your dive gear separate. But if communal tanks abound, a squirt of bleach in the water for a two-minute soak (no more or else the plastic will erode) should keep your eyes in the clear.

The study “Conjunctivitis Outbreak Among Divers” appears in The Underwater and Hyperbaric Medicine Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3, pgs. 169-174.

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