Parasite Can Transform Summer Fun into Sickness

June 22, 2004

As the Lehigh Valley heats up this summer, nothing beats a trip to the local pool. But besides the fun and sun, something else is waiting for swimmers to arrive–cryptosporidium, The Express-Times reported.

Cryptosporidium can be transmitted through hand-to-hand contact and untreated drinking water. However, the most common way to get the illness is by visiting a public pool. When ingested, it can cause cryptosporidiosis which has symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, nausea, fever and dehydration.

According to Dr. Thomas Handzel, former epidemic intelligence service officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Parasitic Diseases, cryptosporidium can survive in very harsh conditions–including chlorinated water–despite the common belief that chlorine kills all germs and parasites.

"The parasite has been strongly resistant to chlorine," he said. The parasite is "not getting stronger, but we are becoming increasingly aware of the problem."

Swimmers, notably children, can contract the illness by unintentionally swallowing pool water. But the ailment often goes unrecognized by people who can confuse its symptoms with other stomach illnesses, Handzel said.

"Infection is probably underreported because a lot of diarrheal diseases are not diagnosed. People either self-treat or don't get examined," he said

Cryptosporidiosis usually affects people for three to five days, but others could suffer for several weeks, Handzel said.

For those without a normal immune system response, the illness can be life threatening.

Although only a handful of outbreaks occur each year, they typically affect hundreds to thousands of people. However, officials say the number of outbreaks of diarrheal illness from recreational water has increased tenfold over the past 15 years.

The worst and most-documented case occurred in 1993 when more than 400,000 residents of Dane County, Wis., were believed to have contracted cryptosporidiosis through the local drinking water.

Penn State Capital College Assistant Professor of Biology Darcy Medica said drinking water should go through filters to ensure safety.

"(Cryptosporidium) can't go through a filter," Medica said. "A membrane with small holes lets only water though, not the parasites."

According to Medica, pool filters consist of a sand-like material which may not be able to catch the small cryptosporidium. And the protective coating of the cryptosporidium allows it to stay alive in chlorine, she added.

In Bethlehem, Bill Mondok, manager of Willow Park Pools, said there is nothing to worry about. According to him, municipal pools use automatic dosing systems with built-in meters to ensure the proper levels of chlorine are maintained at all times.

Assistant Manager of Bethlehem's Northwest Swim Club Tom Novak said outbreaks are possible, but unlikely.

"Anything is possible," he said. "You can't safeguard 100 percent. But if people are careful and sanitary," then risks are lowered.

He said outbreaks could happen if a pool is "not controlled," but he said his pool is constantly monitored.

"We always have hand sanitizers, bleach bathrooms and try to eliminate bacteria," Novak said. "Catching 100 percent is hard, and we haven't had any instances. If something would develop, protocol is to close the pool immediately."

Source: The Express-Times

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