A Rotorua kaumātua who spent 11 days in hospital battling a rare waterborne bacterial infection says he fell ill after visiting Waiteti Stream mouth at Lake Rotorua.
Tamahau Palmer Snr says after a series of tests and treatments, doctors told him he had an infection caused by the waterborne Shewanella bacteria that had entered his body through broken skin on his left leg.
After listing his activities in the days prior, he was told the visit to the Waiteti Stream mouth was the most likely point of contact with the bacteria, he said.
There are about 30 species in the Shewanella family of bacteria, and many are naturally found in soil and water.
The bacteria can cause blood poisoning and skin or soft tissue infections like ulcers or cellulitis.
Members of Palmer Snr's hapū are now calling for public health warnings in the area.
However, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council says it has never tested the areas, which have been assessed as safe for swimming, for Shewanella bacteria and no tests will be carried out until Toi Te Ora Public Health directs the regional council to do so.
Palmer Snr told the Rotorua Daily Post that he took his dog to the northern area of the Waiteti Stream mouth on February 3.
His dog refused to swim, so Palmer waded into the water and called his dog over.
"I was in and out," he said.
Five days later Palmer developed a fever, breathing difficulties and dizziness.
Clair Palmer said her husband was in a bad way when she took him to Rotorua Hospital.
"I was really concerned for him."
The Ngāti Ngāraranui kaumātua and White Haven Funeral Home and Memorials owner was discharged from hospital yesterday afternoon.
Prime Minister's Science Award winner, microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles, told the Rotorua Daily Post Shewanella infections were rare internationally, and very rare in New Zealand.
"I was only able to find one other mention of an infection in New Zealand... but there could have been others that weren't reported in the medical literature."
She had not seen evidence suggesting the bacteria's presence was linked to water quality.
The bacteria was more widespread in warmer climates and during summer.
The most common infection point was through wounds.
"In some people, it can cause a skin or soft tissue infection, like an ulcer or cellulitis. It can also cause blood poisoning."
She said it seemed people with diabetes, circulatory problems, or people on immunosuppressive drugs were most at risk of infection, especially if they had an open wound.
"Two species have been found to cause disease in people – Shewanella algae and Shewanella putrefaciens. Shewanella putrefaciens gets its name from its ability to make trimethylamine which makes it smell like rotting fish."
Tamahau Palmer's cousin Guy Ngatai said the Waiteti Stream mouth area had been a traditional site for Ngāti Ngāraranui hapū to collect fish, watercress and kōura, to eat, and to swim.
He said Palmer's infection was "unbelievable and unheard of".
"It has impacted on the health of one of our kaumātua, his family and his business as a funeral director.
"What assurances can the authorities give us that this won't happen again? It is a world-famous trout fishing spot. There are plenty of people in and around the awa that need to be warned."
Bay of Plenty Regional Council Rotorua catchments manager Helen Creagh said the council had not been advised by Toi Te Ora Public Health to test for Shewanella bacteria at the stream mouth before.
"This is a rare bacteria that has not previously been identified as something of concern in the region. We will be happy to support Toi Te Ora Public Health should they determine that any monitoring of Shewanella is appropriate in the future."
She said the regional council hoped to establish a community action group at Waiteiti this year to help care for the catchment.
In the meantime, she said residents with public health concerns about the stream should contact Toi Te Ora.
Creagh also said Toi Te Ora did not currently have any public health warnings in place for Lake Rotorua, and it had been assessed as currently safe for swimming at the sites which were monitored.
"Standing advice for all waterways including the Rotorua lakes, is to avoid swimming for two to three days after heavy rainfall or 'if you can't see your feet'."
A spokeswoman for Toi Te Ora Public Health said it was not in a position to comment on the case because the infection was not a notifiable disease, so the Medical Officer of Health had no information regarding it.
She referred the Rotorua Daily Post to the Lakes DHB for comment.
A Lakes DHB spokeswoman said it could not comment on the seriousness of Mr Palmer's condition, because it did not have permission to discuss his health information.