Start talking about swimming, and it doesn’t take Michael Beach long to turn the conversation to recreational water illnesses. “My daughters are both swimmers, and my wife swam through college,” he says. “I use the waterparks and I go swimming as well. It’s not about telling people they shouldn’t swim. It’s about altering perceptions. We need to add recreational water illnesses to our repertoire, with drowning, lightning and blood-borne diseases.”
As team leader of water and environmental activity within the CDC’s Division of Parasitic Diseases, Canadian-born Beach knows — probably better than anyone else on the planet — what he’s talking about. He’s been with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta since 1989, beginning with a two-year stint in the Epidemic Intelligence Service program before embarking on his first RWI investigation, a cryptosporidium outbreak in an Atlanta waterpark.
Beach set up a network across the country, asking aquatics facilities to send him stool samples collected from their pools to analyze the prevalence of cryptosporidium in fecal accidents. “It was the infamous ‘floater study’,” Beach says. Since then, his research has morphed into an industrywide awareness campaign.
His other major success came several years later, with the prevention workshop held last February, which brought together public health and aquatics professionals to discuss the problem of RWIs.
Today, Beach is considered the leading RWI expert, speaking at major organizations and conferences. His team has participated in more than 200 media interviews, including radio, major morning TV shows, and print press. He has five- and 10-year plans to conquer RWIs and raise awareness.
Part of that mission is to figure out ways to stop RWIs from spreading. His method: part reaction, part education. Rather than shut down a pool where an outbreak occurs, Beach now recommends superchlorinating the pool and getting it back open as quickly as possible. “People will go to other pools,” he explains. This only causes the disease to spread.
Once the pool is reopened, it’s essential to make sure the community understands what happened and how to prevent it.
“A lot of information needs to be collected, and more people need to be involved and thinking about it,” he says. But he is optimistic. “It’s kind of getting out there in the general thought process. That’s something we’ve wanted to see.” — Rin-rin Yu