A rare parasite that has been making people sick across Iowa has made its way to Webster County, and state health officials are asking the public to wash their fruits and vegetables before eating them.
Other counties reporting the cyclospora parasite are Benton, Des Moines, Fayette and Linn.
Cyclospora, which has only been reported a handful of times in the past decade, is common in people who have been traveling, according to Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director for the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Though she didn't have an exact number, Quinlisk said only one or two cases have been reported in Webster County.
However, with the six cases and a suspected seventh that have been reported statewide so far, Quinlisk said none of those who have gotten sick have traveled.
"We believe they are picking it up here in Iowa," she said. "Outbreaks in the United States are primarily associated with fresh fruits and vegetables, but right now we don't know what's causing this."
While the parasite is not considered life-threatening, it can cause repeated instances of diarrhea that last for multiple months.
"Even somebody with a good, healthy immune system has an average of 57 days of diarrhea," Quinlisk said. "Those who have a compromised immune system can have up to 144 days of diarrhea. And we're not talking about the type that you have it once day and you can go back to work. It's devastating in the long-term and no fun at all."
Those who have contracted cyclospora have also reported extreme fatigue.
"They go to bed for a month," Quinlisk said. "This is not the kind of parasite that most people think of. This is the kind of thing where people are so sick they can't work for a month."
While the parasite can be "devastating," Quinlisk said there is treatment available.
"An antibiotic is readily available and it does work pretty well, but it's not perfect," she said, adding it doesn't work on every patient.
In the meantime, she said the Department of Public Health is working to find the source of the parasite and stop it from spreading.
"A lot of the people who are ill have said they've eaten lettuce or strawberries," she said. "But since those are in season it's hard to say if those are the cause of the parasite."
"So far we don't have anything implicated," she added.
That includes coordinating with Nebraska, which has also reported cases of cyclospora.
"They have been seeing an increased number of cases as well," she said. "As a result, we're coordinating our investigation with them."
Until the cause is found, Quinlisk said there are steps people can take to help prevent ingesting cyclospora.
"One thing that may make a difference is to make sure you wash your fruits and vegetables before eating them," she said. "That's about all we know right now."