IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. — Months after heavy rain from the remnants of Hurricane Hilary battered San Diego, local doctors are raising concern about lingering health impacts.
One family well aware of the illness that comes with living along the Tijuana River Valley are Shirley Nakawatase and her husband Leon Benham. Their backyard is an estuary, a slice of nature mixed in with a stench of sewage.
“I got Hepatitis B from swimming at the mouth of the river,” shared Nakawatase, who has lived in her home in Imperial Beach since she was a kid. “Isn’t that horrible that you have to be prepared for something as nasty as sewage in your own backyard?”
Imperial Beach has been her and her husband’s home for 60 years. When infected water flowing from Mexico is just feet away from where you live, sickness usually is coupled with excessive rain.
“If you walk down this road to the Tijuana River, you’ll see it’s just full of black sewage sludge and when it gets hot like it’s been getting hot, that smell just cooks,” said Benham, who is also the president of Citizens for Coastal Conservancy.
It’s a matter keeping local physicians Dr. Kimberly Dickson and Dr. Matthew Dickson rather busy. They own South Bay Urgent Care and warn illness has grown over the past few months, connecting it to a rise in sewage after bouts of rainfall. They warn that when the bacterial count is high in the water, they see an increased number of cases of diarrhea in their clinic.
“We definitely saw an increase in diarrhea that we saw here in our clinic, and we are at the epicenter of Imperial Beach,” shared Dr. Kimberly Dickson.
They say the data they’ve collected shows over a 560% increase in cases of diarrhea during the time of Tropical Story Hilary, when their typical four to five cases a week jumped to 35. The two used data of cases of diarrhea seen in their clinic weekly overlaid with the publicly available data on “enterococcus pcr” that’s used to close local beaches based on bacterial counts.
The question remains as to how people are getting sick.
“People aren’t in the water during a tropical storm. They’re not swimming, so how are people getting sick. Is it in the water? Is it in the air?”, Dr. Matthew Dickson questioned when discussing the issue with FOX 5.
With a close eye on the problem, the doctors say they want more oversight from the county, claiming the county’s Health and Human Services Agency is missing crucial information while only tracking hospitalizations.
“We’ve reached out to the CDC, the public health department, and to my knowledge, nothing has been done…When the rain starts, it’s an El Niño year, we’re going to get a lot of rain. So, we’re very concerned,” said Dr. Matthew Dickson.
FOX 5 did reach out to the county about the oversight of the rise in illness and inquired how the department is marking illness associated with the sewage. The county did issue a response, saying:
“While we can’t comment on individual cases, County Public Health has not seen a general increase in regional gastrointestinal diseases among emergency department arrivals or a rise in the South Bay of gastrointestinal reportable diseases.”