Three public health agencies in and around Houston, TX, warn residents to look for infections from a foodborne parasite.

The parasite, cyclospora, cannot be seen by the naked eye and can cause severe gastronomical illnesses that require antibiotics. The parasite is commonly found in fresh produce. Food safety experts say washing produce does not necessarily mean the parasite is gone.

“Harris County Public Health (HCPH), the Houston Health Department, and Fort Bend County Health & Human Services have received reports of increased Cyclospora infections within their jurisdictions and urge people to use caution this summer while cooking and spending time outdoors. The agencies are working to determine the source of the parasite.

“The health departments are investigating the cases and would like to remind people that some gastrointestinal illnesses can spread quickly, especially during the summer,” according to an alert from the county public health department.

In Texas, increased cases of Cyclosporiasis tend to occur seasonally between the months of April and August and symptoms tend to appear between two to 14 days after exposure to the parasite. Cases have been associated with the consumption of – but not limited to – fresh produce, including fresh cilantro, raspberries, basil, snow peas, and mesclun lettuce, according to the Texas public health officials.

Most individuals recover with no significant health effect; however, those who are immunocompromised, infants, or elderly, may be more affected and potentially require hospitalization for treatment.

Cyclospora infects the small intestine (bowel) and usually causes watery diarrhea, with frequent, sometimes explosive, bowel movements. Other common symptoms include loss of appetite, weight loss, stomach cramps/pain, bloating, increased gas, nausea, and fatigue. Vomiting, body aches, headache, fever, and other flu-like symptoms may be noted.

Specific tests are required to determine whether a person is infected by the parasite because the infection symptoms can mimic other illnesses.

Some people who are infected with Cyclospora do not have any symptoms. If not treated, the illness may last from a few days to a month or longer. Symptoms may seem to go away and then return one or more times (relapse). 

Other ongoing outbreaks
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating at least four other outbreaks of cyclospora infections. All together the outbreaks have sickened almost 300 people and stretched across at least 22 states.