Cryptosporidium (pronounced crip-toe-spore-id-ee-um) is a parasite found in the gut of birds, fish, reptiles (eg geckos and turtles), humans and animals such as cattle, sheep, cats and dogs.
It is passed on in the faeces (poo, tūtae) of infected animals and humans.
Cryptosporidium is widespread in New Zealand and the parasites can live in the environment for long periods, especially in lake, river, stream and roof water.
How does a person become infected?
People become infected when they swallow the parasites. This may be from contaminated water and food, or from contact with infected animals or humans.
Signs and symptoms of the illness
Cryptosporidium may cause:
- diarrhoea (often watery)
- stomach cramps and abdominal pain
- lack of appetite
- weight loss.
- nausea and vomiting
- flatulence (wind)
- the symptoms appear between two and 14 days (usually seven) after becoming infected
- the illness may last for two weeks or more
- the faeces may remain infectious for several weeks after the symptoms have gone
- some people may be infected but not develop any symptoms at all
- the infection may be prolonged and life threatening to people with a weakened immune system.
Treatment of cryptosporidium
- For testing and treatment you will need to visit your doctor.
- Take a faecal specimen (some faeces (poo, tūtae) in a clean jar) with you, as a laboratory test will be needed.
- Currently there is no effective treatment for cryptosporidiosis. However, the doctor may prescribe medication to help relieve symptoms.
- Drink plenty of safe fluids while the diarrhoea lasts, to prevent dehydration. Follow your doctor’s instructions.
- Go back to your doctor if your child is not drinking.
- If you have cryptosporidium infection the doctor is required to report this to the medical officer of health of the Health Protection Unit. The Health Protection Unit may contact you to find out how you picked up the parasite. This helps to prevent more outbreaks of the illness.
Taking time off work or school
Usually people can go back to work and children can return to early childhood centres and school when the symptoms are gone. However, as cryptosporidium is a notifiable disease you will need to check with your doctor or Health Protection Unit first.
If you are working with food, or employed in a hospital, rest home, school or early childhood centre you may be required to stay away from work until you are tested free from cryptosporidium infection.
How to avoid getting cryptosporidium infection and passing it onto others
Wash your hands thoroughly by using plenty of soap, cleaning under fingernails, rinsing hands well and drying on a clean towel:
- before and after preparing food
- after going to the toilet or changing a baby’s nappy
- after caring for people with cryptosporidium
- after playing or working with animals especially dairy cattle and calves
- after gardening.
It is best to avoid preparing food for other people if you have cryptosporidium infection but if you have to, wash your hands very carefully.
Water in rural areas
- Drinking water taken from the roof, rivers, lakes, etc should be boiled for one minute or an approved filter (Standard AS/NZ4348: 1995) should be used.
- When using roof water, spouting should be cleaned regularly and roofs kept clear of bird and animal droppings.
- Avoid placing TV aerials on the roof for birds to perch on and avoid planting trees close to the house to prevent animals from getting onto the roof.
When you visit a swimming pool
- No one should go swimming in a pool if they have diarrhoea - wait until at least two weeks after the symptoms have gone.
- Take your children to the toilet before they swim and then wash hands well.
- Shower yourself and your children using soap (particularly in the area around the bottom) before entering the pool.
- Ensure babies swim in tight fitting togs, not nappies, to prevent faecal matter (poo, tūtae) getting into the water. Wash your hands after changing the baby.
- Report any faecal accidents (poo in the water) to the pool attendant immediately.
- Avoid swallowing pool water.
Help keep the environment free of cryptosporidium when tramping and camping
- Use toilets when they are provided.
- When no toilets are provided bury toilet waste and paper. Make sure your bury it at least 50 metres away from any water source such as rivers and lakes.
- Do not wash your hand directly in the water. Collect water, wash your hands in it and then drain it into the ground well away from the water source.
- Washing hands in hot soapy water and drying them on a clean towel will help prevent the spread of cryptosporidium.
- Cryptosporidium is a parasite that causes watery diarrhoea and stomach cramps for up to two weeks or more.
- People who have cryptosporidium can easily pass it onto other people if they don’t wash their hands.
- One important way of protecting yourself and others from cryptosporidium is washing hands carefully; especially at calving time.
- If you are working with food, or employed in a hospital, rest home, school or early childhood centre you may be required to stay away from work until you are tested free from cryptosporidium infection.
For more information contact either an environmental health officer at your local council or a health protection officer at the Health Protection Unit (telephone (07) 838 2569