Food Scientists and Legislators Hone in on Cyclospora Outbreak

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and concerned legislators are growing increasingly impatient with the failure to pinpoint the source of the current cyclospora outbreak, in which at least 418 people in 16 states have been infected since June 2013. Of the known cases, 227 are within the states of Nebraska and Iowa and have been narrowed down to bagged produce served at Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants. It is not known yet exactly where and how the parasite entered the bagged salad, and new cases of infection continue to come to light across the country.

The mystery and media interest surrounding the outbreak prompted Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, to publicly urge the authorities to resolve the issue. DeLauro indicated that it was unacceptable that, one month into the outbreak investigation, officials still can offer almost no information to the concerned public about what is causing the national wave of cyclosporiasis.

Cyclosporiasis is a digestive infection caused by the tiny, one-celled cyclospora parasite, often found in fecal matter. It takes 2 to 11 days to incubate within its host before symptoms begin to develop. Severe symptoms occur in some people, while none may occur in other infected persons. One common site of the cyclospora parasite is fresh produce. It can also be found in drinking and irrigation water.

It is possible that the current contamination originated in Mexico where the produce was grown. It could have been in the soil or water used in farming the produce, or it could have infected the produce at the packing plant. This parasite is not eliminated by the simple washing of produce. The food industry is part of a global economy, and this makes tracking a contaminant very difficult for epidemiologists and food scientists. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is hard at work addressing this problem.

The symptoms of a cyclospora infection include the following:

  • watery, and sometimes explosive, diarrhea
  • gas
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • pain in the gut
  • body aches
  • fever
  • headache
  • stomach cramps
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss

A distressing aspect of these symptoms is that, while some people experience them for a week or less, they can hang on in others for up to two months. The symptoms may lessen and disappear, only to reappear one or more times. Cyclosporiasis relapse is common. It is usually preceded by extreme fatigue.

The treatment for a cyclospora infection is antibiotic medication. Patients must be vigilant in eradicating the parasite by taking their full course of medications and by keeping themselves from becoming dehydrated. Severe cyclospora infections may occur in people with weakened immune systems or chronic illnesses.

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