Surveillance for waterborne disease and outbreaks associated with recreational water use and other aquatic facility-associated health events--United States, 2005-2006

MMWR Surveill Summ. 2008 Sep 12;57(9):1-29.


Problem/condition: Since 1971, CDC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists have collaboratively maintained the Waterborne Disease and Outbreak Surveillance System for collecting and reporting data related to waterborne-disease outbreaks (WBDOs) associated with drinking water. In 1978, WBDOs associated with recreational water (natural and treated water) were added. This system is the primary source of data regarding the scope and effects of disease associated with recreational water in the United States. In addition, data are collected on individual cases of recreational water-associated illnesses and infections and health events occurring at aquatic facilities but not directly related to water exposure.

Reporting period: Data presented summarize WBDOs and case reports associated with recreational water use that occurred during January 2005--December 2006 and previously unreported disease reports and outbreaks during 1978--2004.

Description of the system: Public health departments in the states, territories, localities, and the Freely Associated States (i.e., the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau, formerly parts of the U.S.-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands) have primary responsibility for detecting, investigating, and voluntarily reporting WBDOs to CDC. Although the surveillance system includes data for WBDOs and cases associated with drinking water, recreational water, and water not intended for drinking, only cases and outbreaks associated with recreational water and health events at aquatic facilities are summarized in this report.

Results: During 2005--2006, a total of 78 WBDOs associated with recreational water were reported by 31 states. Illness occurred in 4,412 persons, resulting in 116 hospitalizations and five deaths. The median outbreak size was 13 persons (range: 2--2,307 persons). Of the 78 WBDOs, 48 (61.5%) were outbreaks of gastroenteritis that resulted from infectious agents or chemicals; 11 (14.1%) were outbreaks of acute respiratory illness; and 11 (14.1%) were outbreaks of dermatitis or other skin conditions. The remaining eight were outbreaks of leptospirosis (n = two), primary amebic meningoencephalitis (n = one), and mixed or other illnesses (n = five). WBDOs associated with gastroenteritis resulted in 4,015 (91.0%) of 4,412 illnesses. Fifty-eight (74.4%) WBDOs occurred at treated water venues, resulting in 4,167 (94.4%) cases of illness. The etiologic agent was confirmed in 62 (79.5%) of the 78 WBDOs, suspected in 12 (15.4%), and unidentified in four (5.1%). Thirty-four (43.6%) WBDOs had a parasitic etiology; 22 (28.2%), bacterial; four (5.1%), viral; and two (2.6%), chemical or toxin. Among the 48 gastroenteritis outbreaks, Cryptosporidium was confirmed as the causal agent in 31 (64.6%), and all except two of these outbreaks occurred in treated water venues where Cryptosporidium caused 82.9% (29/35) of the gastroenteritis outbreaks. Case reports associated with recreational water exposure that were discussed and analyzed separately from outbreaks include three fatal Naegleria cases and 189 Vibrio illnesses reported to the Cholera and Other Vibrio Illness Surveillance System. For Vibrio reporting, the most commonly reported species were Vibrio vulnificus, V. alginolyticus, and V. parahaemolyticus. V. vulnificus illnesses associated with recreational water exposure had the highest Vibrio illness hospitalization (77.6%) and mortality (22.4%) rates. In addition, 32 aquatic facility-related health events not associated with recreational water use (e.g., pool chemical mixing accidents) that occurred during 1983--2006 were received from New York. These events, which caused illness in 364 persons, are included in this report but analyzed separately.

Interpretations: The number of WBDOs summarized in this report and the trends in recreational water-associated disease and outbreaks demonstrate a substantial increase in number of reports from previous years. Outbreaks, especially the largest ones, occurred more frequently in the summer at treated water venues and caused gastrointestinal illness. Deficiencies leading to WBDOs included problems with water-quality, venue design, usage, and maintenance. Case reports of illness associated with recreational water use expand our understanding of the scope of waterborne illness by further underscoring the contribution of less well-recognized swimming venues (e.g., oceans) and illness (e.g., nongastrointestinal illness). Aquatic facilities are also a focus for injuries involving chemicals or equipment used routinely in the operation of swimming venues, thus illustrating the lack of training of some aquatics staff.

Public health actions: CDC uses WBDO surveillance data to 1) identify the etiologic agents, types of aquatic venues, water-treatment systems, and deficiencies associated with outbreaks and case reports; 2) evaluate the adequacy of efforts (i.e., regulations and public awareness activities) to provide safe recreational water; 3) expand the scope of understanding about waterborne disease and health events associated with swimming and aquatics facilities; and 4) establish public health prevention priorities, data, and messaging that might lead to improved regulations, guidelines, and prevention measures at the local, state, and federal levels.

MeSH terms

  • Bathing Beaches
  • Communicable Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Communicable Diseases / etiology
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Fresh Water
  • Gastroenteritis / epidemiology*
  • Gastroenteritis / etiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrotherapy
  • Population Surveillance*
  • Recreation*
  • Swimming Pools
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Water / parasitology*
  • Water Microbiology* / standards
  • Water Pollution*


  • Water