Swimmers in north Texas sickened

August 1, 2008 5:13:16 PM PDT
A waterborne illness in pools, lakes and water parks has sickened at least 100 North Texas swimmers and may have killed one, a dramatic increase when compared to summers past. Experts say they don't know exactly why there's been a spike in the outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis, a diarrhea disease. But they point to a variety of possible factors, including a true increase in cryptosporidiosis, availability of a prescription drug to treat it and greater public awareness of the illness, commonly known as crypto.

"People, when they have diarrhea are not necessarily thinking, 'Where did I eat last night?' They're thinking, 'Where have I been swimming?"' said Michele Hlavsa, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which has noted a national increase in crypto cases in the past few years. "That's sort of a new development."

In Texas, the number of cases has increased from 79 in 2003 to 237 in 2007, state figures show.

"Obviously this year it will be going way up," said Emily Palmer, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Service. "We'll have a big increase for `08."

She said the incidents in the Dallas-Forth area are driving up the numbers.

Tarrant County has reported 67 cases since June while Dallas County has 50, according to local public health officials. They typically see 10 to 15 cases in a given month.

"This is unusual, and what we consider an outbreak," said Jacqueline M. Bell, spokeswoman for Dallas County Health and Human Services. "We're taking an aggressive approach."

Swimming holes, public pools, spray grounds and water parks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where crypto has been contracted have been temporarily closed and super-chlorinated in an attempt to wipe out the nasty parasite.

Beyond encouraging regular hyperchlorination of contaminated pools -- high levels of chlorine can kill the parasite -- officials are posting precautions and preventive steps at popular swimming places.

Bell speculated that high gas prices have prompted more vacationers to stay closer to home, so they're spending more time visiting local water parks and pools, which makes exposure more likely.

She added that heightened awareness of the situation in neighboring Tarrant County may have prompted more people to seek testing as well as treatment from their local doctors, who are required to report the cases. Most of the confirmed crypto cases in Tarrant County were connected to Burger's Lake in Fort Worth.

Diarrhea, nausea, fever and stomach cramps and vomiting are the most common symptoms of crypto.

The disease is caused by tiny cryptosporidium parasites. It is spread to others who either touch contaminated feces or eat or drink water that has contaminated feces in it.

Officials suggest swimmers shower with soap before entering any pool, always wash their hands after using the bathroom or changing diapers and avoid swallowing pool water. Those diagnosed with crypto or who have diarrhea are asked to stay away from the pool for at least two weeks after their symptoms have ended.

"You can't tell by just looking at the water or just by looking at the person whether that person is a carrier," said Dr. Anita Kurian, Tarrant County Health Department's chief epidemiologist, noting that the higher the density of swimmers, the higher the risk of contamination.

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