by John Mikkelsen
First published at the
Dr Andrew Jeremijenko told the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee last week he knew of three cases of the rare shewenella bacteria infecting Gladstone fishermen. He said this was normally associated with heavy metals and it was “extremely rare” to find a cluster of three cases.
A patient of his had been on the verge of having a leg amputated when the infection was finally diagnosed after 12 months. Before that, doctors had been unable to find the cause or effective treatment.
Gladstone patient left leg & foot
“This person was written off as an undiagnosed case—just a swollen leg. It took a year to find out what he had. A friend of his also had shewenella, so we have had a number of cases,” Dr Jeremijenko said.
He said he knew of another case in Gladstone he was not involved with, where the patient did lose a leg. “In that case it was a vibrio infection."
"The study by the (State) government is a fairly superficial one. In my view it did not follow up these patients for long enough,” Dr Jeremijenko said.
His Gladstone patient was a shark fisherman. “He chops off shark fins for a living, then he pushes the body of the shark away and wraps up the fins and sends them to Asia.
“The shark has had all that disease on it. The juice was falling on to his left leg, which is the leg that got infected….
The other case was a fisherman who got it from washing his boat out. He had to go down into the water to adjust the pump and got the infection there.”
Dr Jerimijenko said the bacteria was more often seen in ‘boat people’ refugees, where there were dead fish and ‘hot water’ at the bottom of the boats.
He told the committee the bacteria was also found in “a lot of the sick fish in Gladstone Harbour”.
“Shewenella is very interesting because it is associated with heavy metals.
In fact, if you have a site contaminated with heavy metals, an anaerobic environment, it can chew up the metal and clean up the site.
“I think that what has happened in this case is that the dredging has pulled up all these bacteria along with the metals that we see in the dredge spoil. It has made the shewenella bio-available and that has caused the infection in these people…. It is extremely rare to have a cluster of three cases…. you would need more cases than that to call it statistically significant—but it is certainly an aberration that needs to be investigated,” Dr Jeremijenko said.
The Senate committee has been gathering evidence from a number of scientists and other interested groups to report on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Great Barrier Reef) Bill 2013.
Dr Jeremijenko said he was previously employed as Chief Medical Officer for Woodside, a major resource company, and had worked closely with them for years on improving health in the Pilbara. The company he now runs, TeleDoctor, has for three years supported QGC and Origin Energy (which are involved in the multi-billion dollar coal seam gas and LNG industries in Central Queensland).
“We have done dredging in Woodside for many years to open that harbour, but we have not seen infections like this (at Gladstone).
“There are ways to do dredging safely. You can use things like silt curtains. You can use closed containment systems. You can now suck out the spoil from underneath the top area and that can protect you from having all the tides washing up the turbidity… but they cost more money.”
With Abbot Point (near Bowen), they said that they looked at onshore disposal, which is the preferred method for acid sulphate soils, and they found that it was too expensive; it was economically prohibitive,” Dr Jeremijkenko said.