Outbreak of cyclospora strikes statewide

The parasite has sickened dozens, including 10 in Pinellas County. Officials aren't sure what's causing it.

Published May 3, 2005

More than 60 infections with a parasite that causes diarrhea and intestinal problems have been diagnosed across Florida.

The cases so far include 10 in Pinellas County and one in Hillsborough, health officials said Monday. State health officials aren't sure what is causing the outbreak of the disease, called cyclospora.

People usually get the disease from consuming water or food contaminated with the cyclospora parasite. It is unlikely to be spread from one person to another.

The parasite also can cause gas, bloating, nausea, vomiting, low-grade fever and other symptoms. But some people who are infected have no symptoms. Others get better, but then their symptoms return.

By Monday afternoon, the state Health Department had 64 confirmed cases over the last several weeks, spread around the state. The normal average is two cases for the year to date, said state Health Department spokeswoman Lindsay Hodges.

The disease is rarely severe enough for people to be hospitalized, and it is rare enough that doctors don't usually test for it. So, it's likely there are more undiagnosed cases around the state, health officials said.

Once diagnosed, the infection can be treated with antibiotics.

Infections often are linked to fresh produce. But because symptoms take a week to show up, it's hard for health investigators to track.

"The thing about cyclospora that's different from other intestinal things, is that it doesn't show up right away," said Jeannine Mallory, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Health Department. "We're having to ask people to go back in (remembering) what they've eaten."

Health investigators are asking patients to document their eating over a two-week period, Hodges said.

Patients are asked what restaurants and grocery stores they usually shop at, and to review restaurant credit card receipts and talk to family to help jog their memories.

The statewide spread could suggest produce that is shipped around the state by a large supplier. But it's also possible that people have traveled to the same place, or that the outbreak actually comes from several different sources of contaminated food.

Last year, an outbreak in Pennsylvania sickened about 50 people. Health investigators linked the outbreak to people who had eaten raw snow peas.

Other U.S. outbreaks have been linked to fresh berries, lettuce and basil.

Health officials advise people to wash their produce, although that may not remove all the parasites. People who have had diarrhea for a week or more should visit their doctors to be tested.