5 On Your Side

Expert: State Health Leaders Slow To Respond To Pedicure Problems

Posted May 3, 2006

— With May being the month for proms, weddings and wearing open-toed shoes, many women are heading to salons for pedicures, but not one person.

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Jessica Fowler said she will never get a pedicure again because of the scars she now has on her legs.

"They're not just scars," she said. "They are actually little indentations in your legs."

The "indentations" started two years ago as bumps.

"They looked like mosquito bites," said Fowler.

Then, they turned into boils. Ginger Jones said she had lesions all over her legs.

"They're gross, it's awful. At their worst, they were about the size of a quarter," she said.

Doctors for both women blame a bacterial infection linked to salon pedicures and dirty foot spas. Dr. Jason Stout, an infectious disease expert at Duke University Medical Center. He is concerned because new cases of the "mycobacteria" infections keep crossing his desk.

"It's probably the tip of the iceberg," Stout said. "This is going to be a common disease that is endemic in the community."

Plus, he feels state health leaders have been slow to respond. North Carolina's Chief Epidemiologist, Dr. Jeff Engel, told Five On Your Side last August, the Department of Health and Human Services worked with Wake County's Health Department try to gauge the number of pedicure infection cases.

"We sent surveys to about 20 dermatologists in Wake County. One or two had seen a case or two. The cases seemed very limited. We had no money to investigate." said Engel. "So, we moved on."

However, Stout thinks the problem is, most doctors, even dermatologists, do not know enough about the pedicure connection to diagnose it. Plus, most women who get the infection do not even go to a doctor unless it reaches a serious stage.

The pedicure infection problem reached an outbreak stage in California in 2000. At least 110 pedicure customers of one salon were infected with the mycobacteria. Many still have disfiguring scars. At least 12 other states report pedicure related mycobacteria cases. Several put out official warnings that dirty whirlpool footbaths can a breeding ground for bacteria.

"It really makes me wonder how many other women in this area have this," Fowler said. "It took me two years to figure out what it was."

Fowler, Ginger Jones and Dr. Stout all want the state to do more to get the word out here.

"I think this is going to be multiple salons, spread out over a wide area," Stout said. "My feeling is we do have a significant problem here."

Engel said the state wants to hear from anyone who thinks they may have the infection. Epidemiologists with the Department of Health and Human Services can be reached at

(919)733-3419

.

Industry leaders said the majority of people who get pedicures are not at risk, provided they go to salons that clean and disinfect correctly. That requires footbaths be cleaned with a hospital grade disinfectant between each customer. A household cleaner is not enough.

Also, the filtering system needs to be disinfected daily. Filter screens should be scrubbed daily, and finally, do not shave at least 24 hours before you get a pedicure -- if not a couple of days.

Shaving can scrape and cut, which leaves you more susceptible to infection.

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