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Health & Science

North Shore Tackles Cryptosporidium


There have been 13 confirmed cases of Cryptosporidium in the north shore communities of Milwaukee. Another 14 cases are probable. Health officials have not yet pinpointed the source of the outbreak but wonder if the culprit was contaminated pool water. The greater Milwaukee area is all too familiar with Cryptosporidium. It wreaked havoc here 20 years ago.

Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that causes diarrhea, cramps, fever and vomiting. Jamie Berg is a health officer for the North Shore Health Department. She says people can contract the disease by swallowing contaminated water, but that’s not the only way.

“We know that there is person-to-person contact, and that’s how some of the cases have come about. People not washing their hands after they have diarrhea or changing a diaper or going swimming while they have Crypto,” Berg says.

Berg says the effects can last anywhere from a few days to a few months.

“For healthy individuals, Crypto goes away just over time. If you go to the doctor, some doctors prescribe antibiotics, but many of them don’t just because Crypto is something that passes,” Berg says.

In 1993, the parasite entered Milwaukee’s water system and sickened more than 400,000 people; around 100 died. Most had compromised immune systems.

Carrie Lewis is superintendent of Milwaukee Water Works. She says it never determined the source of Cryptosporidium - some blamed run-off from farm fields upstate. Milwaukee responded by making major upgrades to its water system.

“Moving the intake from the Howard Avenue plant farther out into Lake Michigan so that it was away from any runoff from the land. Adding Ozone as a primary disinfectant instead of chlorine, and redoing the filters at the water plant,” Lewis says.

Lewis says water works employees also had to change how they view their jobs.

“When the Cryptosporidium outbreak happened in Milwaukee, it became obvious that people who work in the drinking water profession are actually also in the business of public health protection. And it sounds crazy today that we hadn’t really embraced that concept, but 20 years is a long, long time ago,” Lewis says.

Lewis says the crisis – along with the changes Milwaukee made, have influenced water utilities across the country. Officials do not believe the current Crypto outbreak is due to contaminated drinking water. Lewis says people have also been calling Milwaukee Water Works, asking whether its water is safe to drink. She says, it is.