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

16 May 2024, 11:12

Cryptospiridium has been found in Devon water supply
Cryptospiridium has been found in Devon water supply. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Hundreds of people in Devon have been complaining about suffering from an unpleasant stomach bug, with some branding it the "worst illness ever".

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They are suffering from cryptospiridiosis, which is an infectious illness caused by the parasite cryptosporidium.

The parasite was detected in the water supply in an area of south Devon - meaning it is likely that people have been drinking contaminated water.

After South West Water detected the parasite was detected in their supply, they told locals to boil water before using it, and said they would hand out bottled water.

GPs have had over a hundred people complain of symptoms, and a school has had to close because it said operating without drinking water was "not possible". The outbreak is set to last another week and a half.

Read more: Parasite outbreak 'to last ten more days' - as school closes and shoppers panic buy bottled water

Read more: Parasite found in water supply in Devon towns, as 'hundreds fall ill' with bug, and residents told to boil water

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

What is cryptosporidium?

Crpytosporidium is a parasite that is found in bodies of water such as lakes, streams and rivers.

The parasite causes the illness cryptosporidiosis in humans and animals.

Microscopic view of the cryptosporidium parasite, on black background.
Microscopic view of the cryptosporidium parasite, on black background. Picture: Alamy

How do you get cryptosporidiosis?

You become infected with cryptosporidiosis through contact with the parasite. It takes around ten days from infection for the symptoms to show.

Contact can be via contaminated drinking water - as appears to be the case in the current outbreak in Devon - or swimming in water that contains the parasite.

Cryptosporidiosis can also be passed from person to person, or from animals to people.

Another, rarer, way of catching cryptosporidiosis is from eating and drinking contaminated food, such as unpasteurised milk, undercooked meat and offal.

Water mass-distributed in Devon

Who is most likely to get cryptosporidiosis, and who is most at risk?

Children between the ages of one and five are most likely to catch the illness, as well as people who have close contact with them, such as their parents and family and people who work with them.

Those most at risk from the cryptospiridiosis are people whose immune systems do not work properly, such as people who are on immunosuppressant medicine, or people with other serious health conditions.

But for most people, cryptospiridiosis is a highly unpleasant illness that gets better on its own with rest.

Broadsands Car Park, Brixham, Devon, UK. 15th May, 2024. South West Water handing out emergency rations of bottled water to anyone affected by the Cryptosporidium
Broadsands Car Park, Brixham, Devon, UK. 15th May, 2024. South West Water handing out emergency rations of bottled water to anyone affected by the Cryptosporidium. Picture: Alamy

What are the symptoms of cryptospiridiosis?

According to the NHS, the most common symptoms are "watery diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pains, and fever".

These symptoms may only last a couple of days, but can continue for as long as three or four weeks.

Symptoms may go away temporarily before coming back, leading some sufferers to think they have recovered before they are fully better.

People who have cryptospiridiosis sometimes get dehydrated and lose weight if the symptoms are severe and last a long time, meaning their bodies are unable to take in enough nutrients and water.

Cryptosporidium is a waterborne parasite
Cryptosporidium is a waterborne parasite. Picture: Getty

How is cryptospiridiosis treated?

There is no specific treatment, according to the NHS, although if you are seriously ill you should seek medical advice.

People who have fallen ill are advised to rest and drink a lot of fluids.

They should also avoid alcohol and take painkillers if they are suffering from abdominal cramps.

Brixham is one of the towns affected
Brixham is one of the towns affected. Picture: Alamy

Should people with cryptospiridiosis stay off work?

Yes - anyone who has cryptospiridiosis should stay at home, away from work or school, until symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting have been gone for 48 hours.

That is because it is an infectious illness and by being in contact with others you risk passing it on to them.

You should also tell your employer that you have had cryptospiridiosis if you work with the elderly, young people, sick people, or if you handle food in your job.

You should stay away from work if you have symptoms
You should stay away from work if you have symptoms. Picture: Alamy

How else can you avoid spreading cryptospiridiosis?

You should wash your hands very thoroughly, as well as other surfaces in the bathroom and around the house.

Make sure that everyone in your house has their own designated towel, and that they do not touch other people's.

Wash all dirty laundry on as hot a setting as possible.

If you have had the illness, do not go swimming until you have been symptom-free for two weeks.

Cryptosporidium can also be passed on via contact with farm animals
Cryptosporidium can also be passed on via contact with farm animals. Picture: Alamy

How common is cryptospiridiosis in the UK?

Between 3,000 and 6,000 people get cryptospiridiosis ever year.

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