Morning Rounds with Dr. LaPook: Staying safe from cyclospora outbreak

With more than 370 cases of cyclospora infection identified in 15 different states, many consumers are concerned about the safety of the food supply and wondering what they can do to avoid getting sickened by the outbreak.

"It can cause severe illness," says CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramping, flu-like aches and pains, and a low-grade fever. And LaPook notes, those symptoms "can last for a long time."

The illness is caused by a food-borne parasite. Federal health officials say cases have been confirmed in Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Florida, Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. Iowa has reported 143 cases, more than any other state.

The Iowa Department of Public Health has identified an unnamed prepackaged salad mix as the source of 80 percent of the cases in that state, but it is not yet known if all the U.S. cases are connected. Officials said the salad mix contains iceberg and romaine lettuce, carrots and red cabbage. They say it is no longer in the state's food supply.

The Food and Drug Administration is also investigating other possible sources for the outbreak.

"FDA is following the strongest leads provided by the states and has prioritized the ingredients of the salad mix identified by Iowa for the traceback investigation, but is following other leads as well," the agency said in a statement on Tuesday.

Just last week, the FDA also proposed two new rules that officials say will make it harder for sub-par imported foods to make it to the U.S. market. Importers will be required to vouch that their overseas suppliers are using modern, prevention-oriented food safety practices to achieve "the same level of food safety as domestic growers and processors." They will also need to identifying specific safety hazards that are likely to occur with each food and provide assurances that these problems are being monitored.

Cyclospora is a parasite that causes the intestinal disease cyclosporiasis. It is often found in food and drinking water that has been contaminated with fecal matter. It is highly unlikely that the infection can pass from person to person.

Typically, people who live in tropical or subtropical areas are at increased risk for the parasite because it is naturally found in these locations. Cases of cyclosporiasis in the U.S. are usually tied to imported fresh produce, although the source of contamination in this outbreak has not yet been confirmed.

A person usually becomes sick about a week after consuming food contaminated with the parasite. If left untreated, the effects can last from a few days to longer than a month. Symptoms may go away and come back more than once.

It can be treated with an antibiotic, which must be prescribed by a doctor.

LaPook says he treated a case in one of his patients years ago, in an outbreak tied to imported produce. But he says since cyclosporiasis is relatively rare in the U.S., it's likely that many cases go undetected. "You really have to be suspicious and look for it."

Avoiding food and water that may have been contaminated by cyclosporiasis is the best way to avoid the illness. Wash produce thoroughly to remove contaminants from the surface. Chlorine or iodine is unlikely to kill the parasite, and there currently is no vaccine against the disease.

The FDA has more information on its website about preventing food-borne illnesses.

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