Texas public health officials issued an advisory this week following a spike in the number of cases of a parasitic foodborne intestinal illness often linked to the consumption of imported produce tainted with human fecal matter.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), the virulent stomach bug is called cyclosporiasis and it has sickened 68 people around the state, so far. The department hopes to quickly zero in on the source of the outbreak and stave off an epidemic.
This parasitic condition gets its name from the microscopic organism Cyclospora, which spreads through human feces and, in doing so, can contaminate the food and water supply. Cyclosporiasis is characterized by “profuse” watery diarrhea that can last days, weeks, or months. Relapses may occur. Other symptoms can include loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, abdominal cramps, bloating, increased gas, nausea, vomiting, and low-grade fever.
“We’re encouraging people if they’ve experienced these symptoms to go to the doctor,” said DSHS spokesman Chris Van Deusen, who added that the department also encourages physicians “to be aware we’re seeing an outbreak so they can order more testing.”
Officials attributed past cyclosporiasis upticks to ingesting affected imported fresh produce such as pre-packaged salad mix, raspberries, cilantro, basil, snow peas, and mesclun lettuce, a mixed variety of leafy greens.
While the health department recommends everyone thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables, they also acknowledge this may not completely eliminate the threat of Cyclospora since it can be difficult to wash off. Only cooking kills the parasite.
Indigenous to tropical and subtropical regions, the parasitic organism has crossed over U.S. southern border and into Texas several times. In 2013 and 2014, Cyclospora-spoiled cilantro and raspberries were imported into the country from the Puebla region of Mexico and this triggered occurrences of the gastrointestinal illness nationwide.
Then, in 2015, Mexican grown cilantro laced with fecal matter caused 546 U.S. cases of cyclosporiasis. Texas accounted for 315 of them. Breitbart Texas reported health inspectors discovered deplorable conditions in the Puebla cilantro fields. They encountered human feces and toilet paper strewn alongside the crops at multiple sites plus viewed inadequately maintained bathroom facilities often with no soap, running water, or paper towels. Authorities also found a Cyclospora-infested water holding tank used by farm workers to wash their hands.
As a result, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an “import alert” on Mexican produced cilantro in 2016. This resulted in a significant drop in the national total of cyclosporiasis cases bringing it down to 384, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Texas only reported 148 cases last year.
Officials say that commercially frozen and canned produce have never been sources of contamination and advise that cyclosporiasis does not generally spread directly from person-to-person.
Cyclosporiasis can incubate for up to a week but symptoms usually begin two to 14 days after ingesting Cyclospora oocysts, which are eggs, in the infected food or water. The good news is that the illness is rarely fatal. Doctors treat patients who have cyclosporiasis with a course of antibiotics.
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