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Thursday, May 29, 2003 02:20 pm

Your Turn 5-29-03

Reporter shows "honesty and integrity" . . .

Dear Editor,
The article by Karen Fitzgerald on the lepto outbreak of 1998 pleasantly surprised me ["Troubled waters," May 22]; it was refreshing to see someone offer up a plausible explanation to what happened that fateful summer. One fact that was not addressed in the article was that triathletes are 4 times more likely to contract an illness immediately before and after a race. These guys train so hard that their immune system is more susceptible to illness than anyone else. No one wanted to mention that fact, or the fact that several of the racers had just competed in a lake in Wisconsin that later was shown to contain leptospirosis. The real tragedy was the inconsistencies in the public statements issued by all parties involved in the investigation. We were told during and after the ban that x amount of people were tested and shown to have the illness, and then a year later were informed that the tests are unreliable and/or difficult to administer. We were told that wildlife indigenous to the area was probably not at fault, and then, in an amazing about-face a few days later, that as few as 1 or 2 infected raccoons could be the culprits. It seemed like no one really knew what was going on.

In the meantime, the bustling social environment known as "the lake" came to a grinding halt. On one Sunday afternoon, with the mercury hovering in the 80s, I counted 3 boats (including my own) on the water. Lake Club "Chicken Fries" were a disaster, a large portion of the lake crowd stayed away, with some never returning, and the investigation came up empty as to the cause. I applaud Karen Fitzgerald's efforts and research to get to the bottom of the mystery. Her hypothesis makes sense to me! I'm not real thrilled to think that the lake I know, love, and am hopelessly addicted to is attracting scores of infected rats, but at least someone has the honesty and integrity to come out and say so. Keep up the good work, Karen!

Carl P. Long


Or trafficks in "unwarranted criticism"

To the editor:
What's the point? Witch hunt? Chance to gain journalistic fame and notoriety? Compare the leptospira story to SARS or West Nile?

Your cover story on Lake Springfield sensationalizes the terrible leptospirosis event that occurred here a few years ago but does nothing to suggest a solution. It is much easier to criticize than to solve.

Essentially, an army of people who specialize in such investigations have come up empty handed. But because of this article, I've been led to believe that a single reporter has concluded what everyone else could not come to agreement upon?

Although this opinion is interesting, there are some important things missing. One is that the public beach water at the lake is clarified, chlorinated, aerated, and isolated from the rest of the lake. So that staged picture of the cute little kid at the beach doesn't evoke in me some feeling that lake water isn't safe to enter . . . especially at the public beach.

Another is that water used for human consumption is processed, filtered, and otherwise purified prior to our use.

Third, the people at CWLP go to extremes to ensure that our water is safe. That's their job, and they do it well despite sometimes difficult circumstances and unwarranted criticism.

This is a natural body of water, albeit a manmade one. It is not some pristine, untouched, or unused lake. Any such lake in Illinois and other states could have the same bizarre occurrence happen at any time. And I dare say, many more as yet unknown. Muddy-bottomed lakes all experience runoff and microscopic life forms.

To cast aspersions upon CWLP and the people involved in investigating this incident is simply, in my opinion, sensationalizing an event that could not have been prevented nor foreseen.

This article goes to great lengths to trivialize the efforts of CWLP. I've seen absurd allegations before but this one proves absolutely nothing and certainly does not offer anything constructive.

Kindest regards,
William G. Nicol


Karen Fitzgerald responds:
I regret there was no mention that the public beach water is chlorinated. But the public beach was also closed after the leptospirosis outbreak, and people contracted the disease from locations all around the lake. Chlorination at the public beach is weaker than in a swimming pool, and during heavy rains the lake water can rise over the wall and mix easily with the chlorinated water.

My focus was on the end of the lake far from the Lindsay Bridge and the public beach. There are a dozen unchlorinated beaches licensed to clubs and campgrounds; five of them are at the southwest end of the lake where the high bacteria counts are found. These private beaches must close if E. coli readings rise above a certain level, but samples are taken only every two weeks during the summer. Before the lepto outbreak was recognized in late July 1998, only three of these five southwest beaches had been closed--for periods ranging from two weeks to a month in June and early July.

The story noted that drinking water is treated to kill bacteria. I had hoped my research might supply some new pieces to the puzzle and rouse the community to solve the mystery of Lake Springfield's leptospirosis epidemic.

Neither the August 1999 Illinois Department of Public Health report on the outbreak nor the June 15, 2000, article in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases mentioned anything about the immune systems of triathletes --only that the triathletes were more likely to ingest water as they swam, or have cuts and abrasions through which bacteria could penetrate. Even so, at least 248 other people in the lake for recreation also caught the disease.

The Wisconsin triathlon was held on July 5--after Springfield's race on June 21. Some of the Springfield triathletes participated in Wisconsin's race, but that lake was ruled out because there were people who swam only in Springfield who tested positive for leptospirosis. None of those who swam only in Wisconsin did, though ten had symptoms of lepto. The incubation period for lepto also implicated Lake Springfield. The two medical reports on the outbreak say nothing about water samples from the Wisconsin lake being tested.

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