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'Crypto' outbreak linked to petting zoo

Two people contracted cryptosporidiosis and more than a dozen others got sick after attending a local petting zoo March 31, state health officials said.

The Minnesota Department of Health issued an alert to health care providers Wednesday afternoon after laboratory tests confirmed two people picked up the parasite, which causes severe watery diarrhea.

The Humane Society of Goodhue County had a one-day petting zoo and photo shoot at its shelter on Bench Street. Fifteen visitors and staff members have been identified so far, all with symptoms consistent with "crypto" infection, according to a release from Goodhue County Health & Human Services.

Colleen LaVine, infection prevention coordinator for the Fairview Red Wing Medical Center, said it's fortunate the humane society had everyone sign a roster, which officials used to track people down.

"In another circumstance they might not have a clear idea of who all was there," she said Thursday.

All on the list have been contacted. If they have or had symptoms -- diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss and low-grade fever -- they were asked to follow up with their care provider.

People typically become ill two to 14 days after being exposed to the parasite, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people recover in two weeks.

However, patients will continue to shed the parasite in their stools for at least two weeks after symptoms disappear. That's one reason why follow-up and proper hygiene are important, officials said.

"Washing your hands when you're out in the community is your best way to prevent infection," LaVine said. "That's my No. 1 message."

Vicki Iocco, Goodhue County public nurse, stressed that hand gel alone doesn't do it for this. Hot water, soap and scrubbing are critical.

"Crypto" is among the most frequent sources of waterborne disease in the United States. Swimming pools are frequently a source.

On Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported 97 people have reported cases of cryptosporidiosis since last month's outbreak at Edgewater Resort and Water Park in Duluth. Twenty-two of those cases have been confirmed in laboratories.

In March, there was an unrelated cryptosporidiosis outbreak in Brainerd. More than 30 people became ill, and one case was confirmed in a laboratory.

Contact with certain animals such as ruminants also can be associated with cryptosporidiosis. A calf, lamb and goat were part of the petting zoo, Goodhue County Health & Human Services noted.

"It's not rare at all," LaVine said. "We don't see a lot of it in our area, but we have a handful of cases every year."

What is cryptosporidium?

Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal disease cryptosporidiosis. Both the parasite and the disease are commonly known as "crypto."

The parasite is protected by an outer shell that allows it to survive outside the body for long periods of time. The shell also makes parasites very tolerant to chlorine disinfection.

How do you contract it?

While this parasite can be spread in several different ways, drinking water and recreational water are the most common carriers of transmission. Cryptosporidium is one of the most frequent causes of waterborne disease among humans in the United States.

People also can pick up "crypto" from animal feces.

What are the symptoms?

The first signs and symptoms appear two to seven days -- and sometimes 14 days -- after infection. These include watery diarrhea, dehydration, weight loss, stomach cramps or pain, fever, nausea and vomiting.

Symptoms may last two weeks, though they may come and go sporadically for up to a month. Some people with cryptosporidium infection may have no symptoms.

When should I see a doctor?

Seek medical attention if you develop watery diarrhea that does not get better within several days.

How do you treat it?

Most people who have healthy immune systems will recover without treatment. Diarrhea can be managed by drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

People who are in poor health or who have weakened immune systems are at higher risk for more severe and prolonged illness.

Anti-diarrheal medicine may help slow down diarrhea, but a health care provider should be consulted before such medicine is taken.

How do you prevent it?

• Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, rubbing hands together vigorously and scrubbing all surfaces. Do this before preparing or eating food, after using the toilet or changing someone's diaper and after handling an animal or animal waste.

• If diagnosed with cryptosporidiosis, do not swim for at least two weeks after diarrhea stops.

• Shower before entering the water.

• Minimize contact with the feces of all animals, particularly young animals.

• Wash hands after any contact with animals or their living areas.

• Wash hands after gardening, even if wearing gloves.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Mayo Clinic

Anne Jacobson

Anne Jacobson has been editor of the Republican Eagle since December 2003. 

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