More than 600 people have fallen ill as part of a nationwide cyclospora outbreak, and health investigators remain befuddled about the exact cause.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports in the latest outbreak update that at least 609 cases of cyclosporiasis have been identified in 22 states this summer. However, investigators have only found a possible cause for illnesses in Iowa and Nevada, raising questions as to whether there is one outbreak or several. At least 40 people have been hospitalized.
The intestinal infections, known as cyclosporiasis, are caused by a single-celled parasite known as Cyclospora cayetanensis, which is usually linked to fresh produce. However, weeks have gone by without investigators able to account for a large number of the illnesses.
Critics say health officials have mishandled the case, citing how long the investigation has gone on without a determination about the source of the outbreak in the remaining majority of the states. The CDC points to an inability to properly sequence the genome of the organism as the cause for the delay.
Two of the hardest hit states, Iowa and Nebraska account for more than one-third of all cases, with 156 cases in Iowa and 86 in Nebraska. However, Texas has been the hardest hit with 257 illnesses.
Investigators in Iowa and Nebraska have tracked the cases there back to salad mixes distributed by Taylor Farms in Mexico and served at Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants in those two states. However, the Taylor Farms, the manufacturer of that salad has indicated that their products were not distributed at restaurants in Texas.
Taylor Farms stopped production earlier this month and is awaiting FDA clearance to start operations again.
Taylor Farms already faces food poisoning lawsuits from residents of Iowa and Nebraska, and has also been sued by at least one plaintiff in Texas, who believes that the farm is responsible for illnesses there as well, since she became sick after eating at an Olive Gardens restaurant in Texas.
Cyclospora is spread typically by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. The CDC reports that in most previous cases cyclospora outbreaks were linked to fresh produce.
Victims typically experience illness for about a week, with symptoms that include watery diarrhea, frequent, sometimes explosive, bowel movements, loss of appetite, weight loss, stomach pains, bloating, increased gas, nausea and fatigue. The CDC warns that infected persons also sometimes experience vomiting, body aches, headaches, fever and other symptoms that could be mistaken for the flu. However, some people infected with the parasite develop no symptoms.
The ailment is often treated with sulfa-based antibiotics, like Bactrim, Septra and Cotrim. The CDC warns that there are no alternative recommended treatments for patients who are allergic to sulfa drugs. The CDC also recommends victims get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.
Individuals who suspect they may have experienced illness associated with the Cyclospora outbreak should seek immediate medical treatment, and contact local infectious disease officials.