Food-borne illness sickens 45 in Iowa, 35 in Nebraska

DES MOINES – Confirmed cases of a rare food-borne illness have doubled in Iowa over four days and increased dramatically in Nebraska, with public health agencies scrambling Friday to figure out the source.

The outbreak of cyclosporiasis has sickened 45 Iowans, the Iowa Department of Public Health said Friday. On Monday the department had identified 22 cases. The increase may be due to more people hearing about it and getting tested, said Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, the state’s epidemiologist and medical director for Iowa’ public health agency.

“We’re not ready to say it’s absolutely for sure, but things are pointing more toward a vegetable rather than a fruit but we’re still looking at everything,” Quinlisk said of the source. She suggests that people wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly to reduce the risk of illness.

In Nebraska, the state had documented 35 cases as of Friday, mostly in Douglas County on the eastern edge bordering Iowa.

The illness is most commonly contracted by eating food or drinking water contaminated with human or animal feces containing the cyclospora parasite. Since the parasite needs several days – sometimes weeks – to become infectious, it is not passed directly from person to person. It typically takes a week to get sick after ingesting the parasite.

Symptoms of cyclosporiasis include watery diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, stomach cramps, nausea, body aches and fatigue. If untreated, it can cause frequent, sometimes explosive, bowel movements that lasts an average of 57 days if untreated.

Most of the 45 Iowa residents became sick in mid to late June and at least one person has been hospitalized. Many people report still being ill with diarrhea and some have seen the symptoms ease but then return. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said relapses are not unusual.

The recommended treatment is a combination of two antibiotics, which shortens the duration of the illness significantly, said Nebraska state epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Safranek. People who have diarrhea should also rest and drink plenty of fluids.

Quinlisk said investigators are trying to determine whether the confirmed illnesses were the result of a batch of contaminated produce and if new batches being delivered are continuing the exposure.