The parasite is called cyclospora.
People can get it while traveling abroad, from contaminated food or water.
But when there’s an outbreak in North America, it’s usually associated with imported fruits or vegetables. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are now about 285 cases in 11 states.
Christine Mann is with the Texas Department of State Health Services.
She says there was not a single case in Texas this year until July.
Then there was an outbreak of at least 80 cases, many clustered in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“We’re still not positive; we just don’t know if those cases are linked to the multi-state outbreak that’s occurring right now in Nebraska and Iowa for example.”
Cyclospora is not usually fatal, but can be extremely serious, involving diarrhea, cramps and fever. It can be treated with antibiotics.
No cases have been reported yet here in Harris County.
Dr. Scott Lea studies infectious diseases at UTMB in Galveston.
He says the bigger issue here is the way germs piggyback through the global food supply.
“The things that tend to be problematic are things that you have a hard time washing. You know broccoli and raspberries would be more problematic than say a melon. When you have something like raspberries it’s difficult to clean.”
Outbreaks of cyclospora in the 1990s were traced to raspberries from Guatemala.
The FDA still forbids the importation of most Guatemalan raspberries between mid-March and mid-August.
The CDC has estimated that food-borne illnesses cause up to 5,000 deaths per year in the U.S.
Dr. Lea says there’s an ongoing debate about how to make the food supply safer. He says irradiating food works well — and is safe — but is still controversial.
“If the food supply was irradiated it would essentially eliminate most if not all the bacterial and parasitic pathogens, but politically it’s a difficult item and a lot of people are fearful of it.”
The FDA has approved irradiation for many foods — you can see if a food has been irradiated by looking for a circular symbol on the packaging.