Officials seek source of parasite in fruit Raspberry is main suspect for illnesses in 11 states

June 30, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE Sun staff writer Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.

Federal officials are developing a crash program to test food and other items for an exotic microbe that is known or suspected to have made more than 1,000 people sick in 11 states. Investigators are also shifting the focus of their suspicions from strawberries to raspberries as the source of contamination.

The microbe, known as cyclospora, is a parasite that infects the intestine and can cause intense diarrhea, weight loss and fatigue. It has caused three previous outbreaks of disease in the United States, but the ones that started this spring are by far the largest.

The epidemic is yet another in a long line of new and emerging infections like Legionnaires' disease and AIDS that have struck the United States and other countries in recent years.

There has been one confirmed case in Maryland, although the state health department is investigating several other cases of intestinal illness that fit the profile of cyclospora, according to spokeswoman Tori Leonard.

Investigators are working to determine the source of exposure in the one confirmed case, as well as track any other illnesses caused by the microbe.

Despite warnings about such diseases, the current cyclospora outbreak has caught federal health officials by surprise. They say that parasites are rarely the cause of large food-borne outbreaks and that this is the first major national one in recent years. An outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in the Milwaukee water supply sickened 400,000 people in 1993.

This country's food supply is considered very safe. But Dr. Stephen Ostroff of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and other federal officials said that the cyclospora outbreak "highlights the potential vulnerability" of the food supply when a crack appears in the safety walls that protect it.

Tracking the route by which cyclospora is penetrating the food supply is proving hard for several reasons.

One is that it takes a week for a person to become sick. Several more days can pass before cases are reported to public-health authorities.

Patients in some outbreaks have said they recall eating strawberries, but in investigations of more recent outbreaks raspberries have emerged as prime suspects. It is not yet clear whether the disease shifted from one type of berry to the other.

Health officials have not found cyclospora in any raw fruit. It might be that so few microbes are required to infect a person that they escape detection by current techniques.

But with scientists emphasizing the threat of emerging infections and the government spending more money to protect the public, why had U.S. Public Health Service researchers not developed a test for cyclospora in foods earlier?

"We've been asking the same question," said Mary Pendergast, a top official of the FDA, which has responsibility for the safety of produce.

She and other federal officials said that cyclospora had received lower priority than other health problems and that it was unreasonable to assume that scientists could develop such tests only three years after identifying cyclospora as a parasite.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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