Anglers, swimmers warned of ‘nasty’ infectious bug

THREE blokes launching their boat at a South Coast ramp earlier this summer developed nasty lesions on their legs.

The lesions took a couple of weeks to develop but flared up quickly from there. 

Emergency room staff at the Canberra Hospital were very concerned but couldn’t identify the cause at first.  

It took the infectious disease specialist to do a biopsy and identify the bug as mycobacterium marinum, a nasty bacteria that all water lovers need to know about.

If not diagnosed, the infection could have spread to the joints, veins and caused serious damage, amputation or worse.  

And sometimes the sores don’t even appear, rather swelling joints or arthritic-like pain develops. Luckily for the trio a one to six-month course of antibiotics is expected to see them make a full recovery.

Swimmers, fishermen, oyster workers, and aquarium workers are predisposed to infection, and the bug does live in both fresh and salt water – in fact it was more common in swimming pools before chlorination became standard.

Most importantly all three anglers had broken skin (mozzie bites, leg scrapes, nicks, etc) at the time they entered the water at the Mallacoota boat ramp, and the bug entered their bodies through this broken skin.

The infection is sometimes referred to by researchers and doctors as fish handler’s disease.

This condition has also been called “aquarium disease” and “swimming-pool granuloma”.

Researchers are now saying that this bug is a little more common than originally suspected, but this is not a cause for alarm, rather a time for awareness.

If you have had broken skin exposed to non-chlorinated water and get some odd looking sores, or get a stiff arm or leg that isn’t getting better, get it checked out straight away.

Make sure you tell your doctor you handle fish, clean fish tanks or swim regularly outside non-chlorinated swimming pools, and may have had an open wound while doing so.  

Note that in most cases patients have long forgotten having broken skin while entering water, which is why in many cases the bug takes six to 12 months to diagnose!

The most frequently affected areas tend to be hands, feet, arms and legs, because this is where you get most nicks and cuts. 

Furthermore, the bug likes the cooler temperatures around 33 degrees, found in our body’s extremities.

In rare cases swimmers can get the bug on their face, the pictures of which were too graphic to print here.

So forget the old wives’ tale that salt water is good for healing wounds – it could be the worst thing you could do!

While I couldn’t find any hard evidence on this, the anglers concerned and I think that the bug may thrive near boat ramps and fish cleaning tables, because rotting fish carcasses or bird faeces are present.

Extra nutrients in the water aside, these areas are likely to hold the bug because they are a hive of fish activity.

But please understand the bug can and is found anywhere – fish, crustaceans and shellfish living in remote pristine waterways are just as likely to have mycobacterium marinum!

Like many bugs this one can be everywhere but it is the stressed organisms (in this case fish) that are susceptible to contracting the bug and can then pass it on to other stressed fish, for example those in poorly kept aquariums.

While I am aware of this bug, it has never got me so far, and I have been in the water near many ramps and other festy spots, and remote places, often with nicks, cuts and all sorts of wounds, proving how rare it is.

I’ll try to be more careful these days and wear waders when possible if I have an open cut.

Furthermore, I am always getting nicked by a fish during release, or spiking myself when cleaning a fish – proper gloves and more care in general is my tack from now on.

Importantly, researchers currently say that you can’t get the bug from eating an infected fish. I haven’t checked out why but the bug probably dies when the host is dead or chilled on ice.

If you need more information on this topic I suggest you Google it, read as much as you can, and get medical advice should you suspect you’re infected.

See you on the water,

Rob Paxevanos

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