Wash those fruits and vegetables. That’s the latest recommendation from experts regarding the prevention of the new stomach bug, cyclospora, an intestinal illness caused by the microscopic parasite cyclospora cayetanensis that is circulating around the country this summer.
At last count, this severe stomach illness has been reported in 11 states and has sickened more than 275 people with at least 18 of these cases requiring hospitalization, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While these numbers are relatively low, there has been a lot of media coverage on this outbreak. In fact, I was interviewed by WFAA-TV a few days ago to help shed some light on this illness and hopefully educate the public.
To help clear up any confusion or panic, I am recapping my interview with WFAA and also providing information from Cedric Spak, M.D., an infectious disease expert on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.
Here are the most important things you need to know about cyclospora:
1. CYCLOSPORA IS TRANSMITTED THROUGH CONTAMINATED FOOD AND PERSON-TO-PERSON CONTACT
The parasite is thought to come from contaminated fresh fruit and vegetables, but that is still to be determined. Thoroughly washing fresh produce before eating it is always recommended, but now more than ever. Some suggest a fruit or vegetable wash or vinegar mixture instead of just plain water. You should also wash any pre-washed greens or salads just to be on the safe side.
As far as drinking water is concerned, make sure you are drinking purified water. City water in this country is considered safe, but I wouldn’t drink water straight from a lake, stream or river. Also, an infected person could actually transmit the illness to another person if you drink after them or share utensils or plates.
2. IT’S BEEN REPORTED THAT THE PARASITE COULD BE COMING FROM PRODUCE IMPORTED FROM OUTSIDE THE U.S.
Check the labels on the produce you’re buying. If it was imported from another country you may want to choose locally grown produce instead. If you do buy imported produce, again, make sure to thoroughly wash it before eating it, even produce with exteriors that you don’t plan to eat like cantaloupe, watermelons, avocados, etc.
Dr. Spak agrees. “Buying locally grown produce is your best bet to help avoid a food borne illness because we don’t really know what the food safety standards are in other countries. If you do buy produce imported from other places, wash it several times before eating it.”
I would also recommend washing the utensils from which you cut or prepare the produce.
3. THE SYMPTOMS CAN LAST UP TO TWO MONTHS AND ONLY A FEW ANTIBIOTICS HAVE PROVEN EFFECTIVE IN TREATMENT
This parasite can produce very severe symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue and fever. If you suspect that you may have symptoms of cyclospora, seek treatment immediately by contacting your physician and reporting your symptoms. This illness can only be diagnosed with specific tests.
Interestingly, Dr. Spak explains that cyclospora was not well understood by the medical community until the HIV/AIDS epidemic started.
“Cyclospora severely affects those with compromised immune systems and we saw it a lot in people who were infected with AIDS. We didn’t normally pay attention to this parasite until the 80’s because it’s not that common and usually doesn’t affect healthy people as severely. We have learned a lot in the last 30 years which has helped us to better identify and treat it.”
Dr. Spak adds that there is no need for panic. “The public health authorities are very good at investigating these types of outbreaks. Maintaining the safety of our food is of the utmost importance so we can rest assured that they are on top of this.”
To learn more about the cyclospora illness, visit the CDC’s website and pay attention to any news reports.