Lack of technology hampers CDC investigation of cyclospora

(CBS News) NEW YORK -- An outbreak of cyclospora continues to spread. Cyclospora is a parasite that causes stomach illness. Four-hundred-sixty-seven cases have been reported in 16 states -- more than half in Iowa and Nebraska.

The cases in those two states were traced to tainted salad from Mexico, but the source in the other states has not been determined, because the researchers don't have the right tools. We spoke with the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DR. JON LAPOOK: How do you know that the parasite that's in Iowa and Nebraska is the same that's in the other states?

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control
CBS News

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: We don't know that all the parasites are the same. Unless we can really track it down and understand it better, we can't figure out where it's coming from, and we may not be able to prevent as well as we could otherwise.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, says the technology to do that exists, but the agency doesn't have it. Frieden says the CDC needs equipment that would allow investigators to identify a microorganism's genetic makeup, or genome.

FRIEDEN: We need to get to the next generation of detective work. It used to take months to be able to sequence part of a microbe's genome. Now, a piece of equipment like this [holds up computer chip] can sequence a genome in hours. Outbreaks in hospitals of severely resistant organisms we might identify environmental sources, beds, cooling systems which have that microbe on it and were the source.

Staying safe from cyclospora outbreak

Watch: Laws may stop identification of cyclospora source, below.

The problem hampered the CDC's investigation of the cholera outbreak in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The agency was forced to send its samples to Canada for testing.

FRIEDEN: We were able to sequence the genome, but to actually interpret it, we had to send it out of the country to be done, and I never want to have to do that again as CDC director.

LAPOOK: Potentially, what does the lack of this new technology mean in the future, say there was a more severe outbreak?

FRIEDEN: Not being able to analyze the genomic sequence of a microbe in real time is like trying to solve a crime without using fingerprints.

To fingerprint organisms using their genetic code, the CDC has requested $40 million from Congress for a combination of hardware and software.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook