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What is cryptosporidium? The diarrhoea-causing parasite found in Devon drinking water

An outbreak of a waterborne disease in Devon has led to urgent warnings for residents to boil their tap water.

At least 46 cases of cryptosporidiosis have been confirmed in and around the town of Brixham in South West England.

But what is the parasite causing the illness, what are its symptoms, and how serious can it be?

What is Cryptosporidiosis?

Cryptosporidiosis is caused by the parasite Cryptosporidium. Often shortened to “crypto,” infections can occur from drinking contaminated water or swallowing contaminated water in swimming pools or streams. It can also be acquired through contact with the feces of infected animals or humans.

What is Happening in Brixham?

The number of cases has more than doubled to 46, with over 100 additional people reporting similar symptoms in the area. South West Water suspects the parasite entered the water supply through animal feces, but the investigation is ongoing.

Initially, South West Water assured locals that their tap water was safe. However, subsequent tests of the Hillhead reservoir revealed “small traces” of the parasite, prompting a warning for residents to boil their drinking water. South West Water has apologized for the situation and increased compensation for those affected.

What are the Symptoms?

Symptoms of cryptosporidiosis include:

  • Profuse watery diarrhea
  • Stomach pains
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Low-grade fever
  • Loss of appetite

How Long Does it Last?

Symptoms typically appear within one to 12 days of infection and usually last about two weeks. However, symptoms can persist for up to six weeks or longer, especially in individuals with weakened immune systems. During the illness, symptoms may seem to improve only to return a few days later before complete recovery.

How Serious is it?

Most people recover, but cryptosporidiosis can be severe and potentially fatal for those with severely weakened immune systems. Serious cases and fatalities were more common before effective antiretroviral treatments for HIV/AIDS became available.

Who is Most at Risk of Serious Illness?

Those at greater risk include:

  • People on immunosuppressive drugs, such as cancer or transplant patients
  • Individuals with untreated HIV/AIDS
  • Malnourished children

Does it Need Treatment?

There is no specific treatment for cryptosporidiosis. It’s important to stay hydrated as diarrhea and vomiting can lead to dehydration. Oral rehydration sachets can help replace lost sugars, salts, and minerals. Dr. Lincoln Sargeant, Torbay’s Director of Public Health, advises anyone with severe symptoms, like bloody diarrhea, to contact NHS 111 or their GP. Severe cases may require hospitalization.

How Do You Know if You Have Crypto?

The symptoms of cryptosporidiosis are similar to other stomach bugs, so a laboratory test of a stool sample is necessary for a definitive diagnosis.

How Can You Stop the Illness from Spreading?

To prevent the spread of cryptosporidiosis:

  • Stay away from nursery, school, or work while symptomatic and for at least 48 hours after symptoms stop.
  • Avoid swimming for two weeks after symptoms cease.
  • Do not prepare food for others until 48 hours after diarrhea stops.
  • Practice good handwashing hygiene, especially when handling food and after using the toilet.
  • Wash bedding and towels on the hottest possible cycle as recommended by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA)

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