By CRISTIN REECE
Local healthcare professionals are warning East Texans to thoroughly wash their fresh fruits and veggies after the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported numerous cases of a parasitic infection that cropped up across Texas last week.
Officials with the Palestine Regional Medical Center said while there have been no cases of the stomach bug cyclospora reported as yet, at least two confirmed reports of the illness have been reported in Smith County.
“To my knowledge, we have not seen this outbreak in our area, to date,” PRMC Chief Clinical Officer Christi Watkins said Friday. “Unless the symptoms are bad enough, we probably would not see them in the ER or the hospital setting.”
Watkins said those most vulnerable to the illness are the elderly and women ages 44 and above, as those are the populations that eats the most fresh fruits and vegetables as part of their regular diet.
Other cases have been confirmed in other parts of the state, as well as Iowa, Nebraska, Georgia, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey and Ohio.
As of Wednesday, 285 cases had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control, and at least 18 people had been hospitalized because of the cyclospora parasite, which causes an intestinal infection called cyclosporiasis.
The cause of the illness has not yet been identified, but the parasite is most commonly found in fresh produce, including fruits, vegetables and herbs, grown in tropical and subtropical regions, Dr. Barbara Herwaldt, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC, told Reuters news service on Thursday.
“Because no food item has been implicated to date we're not yet sure the cases in the various states are related,” she said. “Though it's quite likely that the cases in the Midwest might be.”
Watkins added, “Outbreaks are typically related to fresh fruits and vegetables that carry the parasite, all the good things that people like to eat in the summer. In Texas, cyclospora likes to live on lettuce, fresh basil, snow peas, as well as other items often found in the vegetable stands on the corner.”
Cyclosporiasis is caused by ingesting food or water containing a one-celled parasite that is too small to be detected without a microscope. Symptoms include watery diarrhea, vomiting and body aches and typically manifest within several days of eating the contaminated food. If not treated, the illness may last from a few days to a month or longer and patients have been known to relapse, the CDC said.
CDC officials are currently working with health officials in Texas and elsewhere to track the source of the infection.
“When people get sick, they don’t go to the doctor immediately,” Belen Moran, a spokesperson for the CDC, said in a media release published at the Dallas Morning News sponsored website, thescoopblog.dallasnews.com. “And when they do and when they’re tested, it takes a few days to get those results back. And if they do have the parasite, an epidemiologist will ask them what they ate three weeks ago. So it can be very hard to pinpoint. We just don’t know if the cases are linked.”
As a precaution, Watkins and officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture encourage people to thoroughly wash produce before it is eaten to minimize the chance of infection.
“The FDA recommends washing fruits and vegetables very well and taking the extra step to dry it with a paper towel, as the residue can be “sticky” and hard to remove,” Watkins said. “Freezing your fruits and vegetables help to kill the bacteria that is a living organism as well.”
The CDC also recommends that anyone with cyclosporiasis-like symptoms seek medical treatment and ask to be tested for the parasite.
“The good news is that the infection is easily treatable with readily available antibiotics,” Herwaldt said.