MILWAUKEE -- An outbreak of a flulike intestinal illness has stricken hundreds and perhaps thousands of people in the Milwaukee area during the last few weeks, and the city has now been seized with alarm by health officials' suspicion, first announced late Wednesday, that the cause may be contamination of the municipal water supply.
Although the authorities emphasize that the water system has not been conclusively implicated, they have cautioned residents not to drink tap water, or use it to brush their teeth or wash food, unless they first boil it for five minutes.
The warning has set off a scramble for bottled water, which was emptied from the shelves of many stores throughout the area today. The Milwaukee public schools covered their water fountains, offering thirsty students milk or juice instead.
No such precaution was necessary at many private schools, which were already closed because too many teachers and students were ailing as a result of the outbreak. Many businesses were emptied of workers. And, like the bottled water at grocery stores, intestinal-flu remedies were in short supply at pharmacies.
Health officials' suspicion is that the illness, first thought to be viral, is instead cryptosporidiosis, an intestinal ailment caused by a parasite, cryptosporidium. The officials believe that the
parasite may have contaminated the municipal water supply, perhaps because of faulty operation by one of the system's two purification plants.
Symptoms of the illness include severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting. Otherwise healthy people who are stricken by it usually recover within seven to 11 days. No deaths from the current outbreak have been reported.
The municipal water supply is drawn from Lake Michigan and serves 800,000 people in Milwaukee and 10 suburban communities. At a news conference late yesterday, health officials said they planned to close one of the system's two water purification plants because they had found higher-than-usual levels of turbidity, water cloudiness that serves an indicator of impurities like the parasite. The officials said they were also stepping up laboratory tests of water drawn from throughout the system's distribution pipes.
Appearing at the news conference, Mayor John O. Norquist said that as of 4:45 p.m. yesterday, there had been 23 confirmed cases of illness caused by the parasite. But because of some confusion over the symptoms, many people stricken instead with the flu may be concerned that they have contracted the parasitic illness. Officials are therefore unsure not only about the source of the outbreak, but also about the number of people made ill by it.
James Kaminski, the commissioner of public works, said the high FTC level of water cloudiness at the plant being closed might have resulted from the season's high rainfall and resulting runoff into the river.