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To the showers! Poll highlights health hazards of public swimming

Mary Altaffer / AP

Children cool off at the Hamilton Fish swimming pool on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Aug. 4, 2009, in New York.

You teach your kids to wash their hands before eating and after using the bathroom, but do you make sure they shower before swimming in a public pool or water park?

Probably not, says a new poll that surveyed parents of elementary school children. Conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, the poll found that of the 865 parents surveyed, only 26 percent felt it was very important to take a shower before swimming. In contrast, 64 percent said it was very important for children to avoid swallowing the water they swam in.

“Parents seem to understand the risk of contaminated water for their kids but few have their kids take the necessary preventive steps to keep everyone healthy,” said Dr. Matthew Davis, who directed the poll and is an associate professor at the University of Michigan Medical School.

The findings also suggest that many parents don’t understand the range of risks for contracting waterborne infections.

More than 10,000 Americans are sickened annually by recreational water illnesses, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and fever or skin, ear, respiratory and eye infections. Such illnesses can be acquired by swallowing contaminated water and having contact with it in swimming pools, water parks, water play areas, lakes, rivers and oceans.

Unfortunately, such cases are on the upswing. There has been a substantial increase in outbreaks associated with swimming in the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Currently, the leading cause of swimming pool-related diarrheal illnesses is the parasite Cryptosporidium, which can survive for days even in well-maintained pools. Reported cases of cryptosporidiosis increased more than 200 percent between 2004 and 2008, from 3,411 to 10,500 cases.

North American water parks, which drew approximately 79 million visitors last year, work to ensure their water is clean and safe, Aleatha Ezra, a spokesperson for the World Waterpark Association, told msnbc.com. “There are very specific water-quality guidelines in place to keep the water clean and chlorinated,” she said. “You can’t operate a public pool or water park without following them.”

Still, the chlorine-filtrated water is not meant for drinking, and that’s where proactive efforts like showering can make a difference. “It really does cut down on the chances of putting germs in the water in the first place,” Ezra said.

Many parents, though, aren’t getting the message. According to the C.S. Mott poll, only 15 percent of parents think their children are at high risk for contracting an illness at a water park, while 33 percent believe there’s a high risk of their children drowning. In fact, the risk of drowning is much lower than that of getting sick. The solution, say experts, is a collaborative effort between park and pool operators and parents that focuses on simple preventive measures. Among them, according to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital:

  • Shower or wash thoroughly with soap and water before swimming.
  • Take children on bathroom breaks or check diapers often.
  • Remind children to not swallow the water or get water in their mouths.
  • Do not swim if ill with diarrhea.

One way to learn these lessons, aside from a painful firsthand experience, is to participate in the CDC’s Healthy Swimming Video Contest. The winning entry, which should be 60 seconds long and highlight tips for illness-free swimming, will receive $1,000. The deadline for submissions is July 4. 

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.