Lindsey Bever, Washington Post
Food security officials urgently urge people to take precautions to protect themselves from a microscopic parasite that can live for days in swimming pools and playgrounds and cause severe intestinal problems.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report on the increased number of outbreaks caused by the fecal parasite, Cryptosporidium, more commonly known as "Crypto."
The parasite, a common cause of water-related disease outbreaks in the United States, causes cryptosporidiosis, a disease characterized by nausea, vomiting and "aqueous diarrhea" that may last for weeks, according to the CDC. Although most cases do not require medical treatment, public health experts will warn that the parasite may pose a greater risk to persons who are particularly young or old or who have impaired the immune system and are at increased risk of "life-threatening malnutrition". [1
The CDC said that over the last decade reported over 400 outbreaks in the United States, causing nearly 7,500 people to become ill. Of these, more than 200 people were hospitalized, and one person died as a result of the disease, according to the report.
The most common cause of the outbreak was to swallow contaminated water from recreational sites, researchers say. About 35% of the outbreaks were diseases associated with swimming pools and playgrounds, the report said. Contact with infected cattle accounted for approx. 15% and contact with infected persons in the childcare institutions accounted for approx. 13%, according to the report.
Michele Hlavsa, who leads the CDC Health Program, said in a press release last week that "small children can become seriously ill and easily spread crypto."
"They don't know how to use the toilet and wash their hands, or just learn how," she said. "But we as parents can take steps to keep our children healthy in the water, around animals and in childcare."
Cryptosporidium lives in the intestines of infected humans and animals, which cast a form of the parasite into their faeces, according to the CDC. Public health experts say that even trace amounts of infected fecal matter on the hands or swimwear can contaminate food, drinks or swimming pools – and others who ingest it can also get infected.
Symptoms of cryptosporidiosis usually begin to occur within approx. two to 10 days after acquiring the infection, according to the CDC. In addition to diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, other symptoms may include fever, abdominal pain, dehydration and weight loss.
Bobbi Pritt, a physician and co-director of Vector-Borne Diseases Lab Services at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said the parasite is endemic to the United States and can infect humans in swimming pools because the parasite can survive even treated water with its resilience against chlorine and some chemicals.
She said that people with diarrhea should not go to the pool and they in the pool should avoid swallowing water.
Pritt added that livestock can also be infected with the parasite so that people visiting zoos or county fairs must wash their hands thoroughly after the cultivation of animals.
Other precautions are to keep sick children with diarrhea away from the water as well as from childcare facilities; wash hands with soap, not hand cleaners; and remove shoes around pets before entering your home, according to the CDC.