A stomach bug makes an unwelcome appearance

A stomach-churning foodborne infection is suddenly in the news again this summer — and it seems to have Bexar County in its crosshairs.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is issuing warnings about cyclospora, a parasite often associated with raw produce. While they’re still trying to figure out the source of the problem, the largest number of cases have been identified in Bexar and Travis County. Of 156 cases reported statewide, Travis has had 31 cases and Bexar 24.

University Health’s laboratory confirmed four cases in the week ending July 28 alone. All four of the patients were between 18 and 49 years of age.

Dr. Jason Bowling, an infectious disease specialist at UT Health San Antonio and staff epidemiologist for University Health, noted Texas had a similar cyclospora alert last summer. In other parts of the country, outbreaks have been associated with fast-food salads and packaged salads at grocery stores.

“At least here in Texas, it seems like we’ve seen it more in the summertime,” Dr. Bowling said. “It’s been associated with cilantro a couple of times. It’s usually some kind of produce.”

The parasite causes diarrhea that can last for weeks, along with loss of appetite and fatigue. While other foodborne infections such as E-coli can cause severe gastrointestinal illness, the associated diarrhea usually lasts only two or three days and tends to go away on its own.

Cooking kills the parasite. And while washing raw produce before eating it may reduce the risk, it’s not foolproof, Dr. Bowling said.

“Standard sanitizing or washing doesn’t eliminate cyclospora, but there’s not a lot else you can do,” Dr. Bowling said. “The CDC recommends washing your produce, but if it’s contaminated with cyclospora you may not be able to eliminate that entirely.”

Dr. Bowling said more sophisticated laboratory tests may be why we’re seeing more cyclospora and other foodborne infections. But another reason has to do with how food makes the journey from farm to table.

“There’s been a shift over time where more and more of our food is imported,” Dr. Bowling said. “In the past, grocery stores had a very small selection. Now you go to any grocery store, even a convenience store, and you’ll find a wide variety. And the majority of that is imported. So we get products from places where there’s an increased risk for something like cyclospora.”

The best defense against any foodborne illness is the same. Wash your hands often and practice the Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill advice in the kitchen.

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