Grandmother, 80, rushed to hospital with severe dehydration amid Devon parasite crisis - as cause of outbreak found

16 May 2024, 16:18 | Updated: 16 May 2024, 16:19

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Water mass-distributed in Devon

By Jenny Medlicott

A grandmother has been rushed to hospital after drinking from water supplies contaminated with a microscopic parasite in Devon.

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Elaine Hollier, 80, from Brixham, Devon was rushed to hospital on Saturday after suffering from severe dehydration and vomiting as a result of drinking the contaminated water.

Medics were initially unsure of what had caused the symptoms, before South West Water later confirmed the parasitic outbreak in the area.

Her husband, Dennis Hollier, told the Mirror: “She was absolutely diabolical. For four days I was trying to help her but I got so worried I phoned 111. The hospital didn’t know how to treat her because they didn’t know what was infecting her. She had severe stomach pains and could hardly talk because she was so dehydrated.

“As soon as they confirmed there was a bug in the water the doctors said ‘we know how to treat you now’. I have been worried sick, I was even told to stay away from the hospital because they didn’t know what it was.

“I phoned up South West Water to tell them what happened but they said you can carry on drinking the water. I know 10 people at least who have come down with it."

It comes as the cause of the contamination has been revealed as an issue with a damaged air valve, which may have allowed animal waste or contaminated ground water to enter the water supply, Totnes MP Anthony Mangnall said.

Empty shelves in a Devon supermarket after people began panic buying water
Empty shelves in a Devon supermarket after people began panic buying water. Picture: Social Media

He said: “South West Water believe they have located the source of the issue and initiated a fix but are continuing their investigations and will be testing their network to ensure water is safe.

"The boil water notice is therefore likely to be in place for at least a further six or seven days, with bottled water available throughout this period."

Victims of a microscopic parasite in water supplies in Devon have described the terrible symptoms of their illness - as experts say the contamination is likely to last at least a week.

At least one school has been forced to close, hundreds of people say they have suffered symptoms and residents are being told only to drink boiled water.

South West Water (SWW) said the parasite cryptosporidium had been found in the water in Brigham on Wednesday, despite the firm previously telling residents the water was safe.

SWW issued a ‘boil water’ notice to around 16,000 households and businesses in the area. People are advised not to use their tap water for drinking or washing without boiling and cooling it first.

The company has now confirmed that residents will get £115 rather than just £15 initially offered as a "sorry for the stress and worry the situation has caused".

Read more: What is cryptosporidium, the parasite that's given people in Devon 'the worst illness ever'?

People in Brixham, Boohay, Kingswear, Roseland and north-east Paignton in Devon were all told to boil water as a precaution - including when drinking it or using it to cook with and brush teeth.

Residents were being given bottled water at special sites yesterday.

South West Water handing out emergency rations of bottled water to anyone affected by the Cryptosporidium outbreak in Torbay
South West Water handing out emergency rations of bottled water to anyone affected by the Cryptosporidium outbreak in Torbay. Picture: Alamy

One holidaymaker to the area told LBC: “I was on holiday last week in Paignton and I suffered severe stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea.

A man filled his trolley with bottled water at a supermarket in Devon
A man filled his trolley with bottled water at a supermarket in Devon. Picture: Social Media

“I didn’t have a clue how this could’ve happened as none of my family got ill and i was poorly majority of the holiday.

“I am assuming it is from drinking water from the tap.”

Other locals who believe they have been struck down by the parasite have told of severe stomach cramps, dehydration, high fevers and 'explosive diarrhoea’.

Retiree Kathy Hudson, 67, told MailOnline: “I have been ill since last week with cramps, diarrhoea, sickness and dizziness. My daughter-in-law has also got ill.

Water mass-distributed in Devon

“I don’t want to know what is in the water I have been drinking but now they are saying not to wash your hands, can you shower? What’s it going to do to you?”

Prof Paul Hunter, a specialist in microbiology and infectious disease, said cases would continue to climb even after the source was found.

He said: "It's difficult to know how big these outbreaks turn out to be and it depends on whether the contamination event is a very short lived thing.

"The difficulty here is that cryptosporidium can take up to about 10 days before you become ill, so even if they stop the infection today we'd still see new cases occurring for at least another week to 10 days."

She said people have been panic-buying bottled water.

Eden Park primary School said it would be closing today as it could not safely open for students without clean drinking water. They issued a statement last night: "Eden Park Primary School were only informed this afternoon (15/5/24) that the school was in an area where the tap water should be boiled.

"The school have taken swift action to put safety plans in place and contact the appropriate authorities about providing safe drinking water.

"At the time of writing this update (7.30pm), and despite repeated calls to South West Water about the urgency of the situation, the school has not received any bottled water or assurances of when water will be delivered. To enable parents and carers to make childcare plans for the morning, leaders have made the difficult decision to close the school tomorrow, Thursday 16th May.”

A South West Water spokesperson said: “Customers in Alston and the Hillhead area of Brixham are advised to boil their drinking water before consuming following new test results for cryptosporidium. We are issuing this notice following small traces of the organism identified overnight and this morning.

"We are working with the UK Health Security Agency and other public health partners to urgently investigate and eliminate the source. We apologise for the inconvenience caused and will continue to keep customers and businesses updated. Bottled water stations will be set up in the affected areas as soon as possible.”

At least 22 cases have been confirmed in the area.

Many residents of the seaside town of Brixham have complained of diarrhoea, cramps, vomiting and nausea for days.

Health authorities believe they are suffering from cryptosporidiosis, caused by cryptosporidium, an intestinal parasite that can spread through contact with contaminated water.

It is unclear where the parasite came from, and how it got into the water supply.

A notice from South West Water urging residents to boil their tap water
A notice from South West Water urging residents to boil their tap water. Picture: South West Water

Only 16 cases have been confirmed so far, and 70 more are under investigation. But many more locals have said they are suffering from symptoms.

Read more: Up to 10,000 hidden sewage pipes could be fuelling fivefold increase in fish deaths

Read more: Thames water set to hike your water bills by 44% as it battles to survive under billions of pounds of debt

Brixham. Picture: Alamy

South West Water (SWW), the local water supplier, said at first that tests for cryptosporidium had come back negative - and urged locals to carry on drinking tap water.

But on Wednesday they admitted that "small traces of the organism" had been found. A spokesperson urged people in the villages of Brixham, Boohay, Kingswear and Roseland, as well as north-east Paignton, to boil their water.

That applied to water for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth, he said. The company will also hand out bottled water to residents of the affected areas.

SWW said: "We apologise for the inconvenience caused and will continue to keep customers and businesses updated."

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Local Facebook pages are full of comments from residents who are suffering from cryptosporidiosis symptoms.

A video posted online appears to show several workmen carrying out tests.

Tanya Matthews, who lives locally, wrote on Tuesday: "Southwest water are saying its very unlikely the water! Then went on to ask if I had been in the sea or a I have not.

"I also think the water tastes funny, been leaving a horrid taste in my mouth, so they are coming to test my water tomorrow. But say they can not test for crypto out of the tap because they would need a huge volume of water."

Sarah Bird, consultant in health protection at UKHSA South West, said: "At this stage a source has not been identified, and more information will be shared as soon as it is available. For most people, cryptosporidium symptoms can be managed at home without needing medical advice."

Posted by Maureen Wilkes on Wednesday, May 15, 2024

She added: "Anyone with a diarrhoeal illness should drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and if they have severe symptoms like bloody diarrhoea, they should contact NHS 111 or their GP surgery.

"Please stay off school and work for 48 hours since the last episode of illness and away from swimming pools for 14 days after the last episode of illness."