Central Texas doctors scrambling to find source of parasite infection

Local News

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Restaurants and stores across the country are scrambling to wash produce and remove any that may be tainted with a tiny parasite. In Texas, doctors are seeing a surge in the number of cyclosporiasis cases.

It is an illness caused by cyclospora, a parasite commonly found in fresh fruits and vegetables from Central and South America. And doctors say becoming sick with it may be a side effect of healthy eating.

Once the parasite enters the body, it lingers and is passed through stool. It is at this point that patients start experiencing symptoms that include watery diarrhea, nausea and loss of appetite, said Lara Anton, a press officer with the Texas Department of State Health Service.

The slow timing factors into the investigation in the outbreak, she said.

“Because it takes about a week for symptoms to develop, we have to figure out what you ate and where you ate,” Anton said. 

Doctors in Illinois and Iowa have linked more than 100 cyclospora cases to several McDonald’s restaurants in those states. The customers say they ate at the fast-food chain late last month and early this month. The restaurant blamed the outbreak on its salad mix.

But health workers in Texas say McDonald’s did not distribute that lettuce in Texas.

So far, they have discovered 93 cases. At the beginning of the month, doctors were reporting nearly 60 cases. About 10 cases are in Houston. San Antonio doctors have seen 14 cases so far. But, the majority of patients are in Travis County, where health workers have seen 20 cases. 

“That’s probably why we’re having more outbreak in Travis County than other areas, we’re all eating our veggies and our fruits,” said Baylor Scott and White family medicine physician Dr. Steve Loeschen.

Another challenge in the investigation: by the time many patients get in for testing, they are usually recovering. That means the parasite is out of the body, the symptoms have weakened and many cannot remember where they might have contracted the cyclospora, Dr, Loeschen said.  

Plus, many patients forego costly stool exams that could pinpoint the parasite. He said there is one way to cut down on the chances of the parasitic illness. 

“Washing of produce is probably the number one key,” Dr, Loeschen said.        

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