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MailTribune.com
  • SWIMMING IN BACTERIA

    Along for the ride?

    Study finds varying levels of staph in the Rogue and its tributaries, but what it means isn't clear
  • During a trip down the Lower Rogue River Canyon in fall 2010, fishing guide Dan Stumpff noticed the back of his right hand swelling, then festering with a pussy green ooze.
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  • During a trip down the Lower Rogue River Canyon in fall 2010, fishing guide Dan Stumpff noticed the back of his right hand swelling, then festering with a pussy green ooze.
    Staphylococcus bacteria, or staph, apparently slipped into his skin through a small puncture wound on the base of his middle finger, rendering it almost useless.
    "It was painful, it was miserable," says Stumpff, 56, of Medford.
    And it wasn't isolated.
    At different times over a two-month period, three other guides working for Stumpff ended up with staph infections. So did three guides working for a different outfitter along that same stretch of the Rogue at the same time. "It seemed like we all got it," says Jordan Wright of Portland, who works for Stumpff and contracted staph on his thighs, calf and a foot. "The only common link we could think of was the river."
    Their ordeal spawned a private, independent study that shows that Bear Creek and other tributaries are pumping varying levels of staphylococcus bacteria into the Rogue, and this data has the potential either to raise serious red flags about bacteria loads in the Rogue or become a public-health red herring.
    The state Department of Environmental Quality doesn't test public waterways for staphylococcus, and there are no standards available to judge whether staph levels measured in the study are unsafe or not.
    Moreover, the samples were tested only for all strains of staph and not just the one tied to skin infections.
    The Rogue water that the guides were exposed to at the time wasn't tested, so their cases are anecdotal and the source unproven, public health officials say.
    Besides, 30 percent of people carry the nasty strain of staph in their noses anyway, so they could have infected themselves — or each other.
    "If you're a carrier, those are the people who get skin infections," says Dr. Paul Cieslak, manager of the communicable disease section of the Oregon Health Authority. "If they had a lot of contact, they could have passed it between them.
    "It's theoretically possible that it came from the river, but the river has a big dilution factor," Cieslak says. "It's more likely to be transmitted in a close setting with family members or co-workers."
    Stumpff says he knows the study is no smoking gun, and he doesn't want staph fears to steer people away from the Rogue Valley's signature feature. But he doesn't want the issue to be swept away, either.
    "To me, it's a concern," he says. "For us as river-users, obviously, we're in contact with the water more than the normal person. We're out there all the time.
    "I'd at least like to get an answer on this," he says.
    Staphylococcus is one of unknown numbers of viruses, bacterium, parasites, algae and other microscopic life forms found in public waterways, but their levels go untested in rivers such as the Rogue because they are not considered indicators of bacterial pathogens, says Bill Meyers, the DEQ's Rogue Basin coordinator.
    The agency uses E. coli as its indicator bacteria, with the main-stem Rogue and tributary streams such as Bear Creek, Ashland Creek and others containing well-documented levels that at times are considered unhealthy, Meyers says.
    But because there are no health or water-quality criteria for any form of staph, measurements can be compared only to each other and not against what might be considered healthy or unhealthy levels.
    After learning of the staph infections by Stumpff and others, Grants Pass businessman Dennis Becklin decided to add staph counts to a series of water-quality studies he bankrolled for the Rogue.
    Water samples collected in late 2011, early 2012 and again last fall showed varying levels of staph bacteria, with higher levels during low-flow months of September and October, according to the study.
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