'It's Something I'll Never Forget': Cryptosporidium's Impact On Milwaukeeans

May 10, 2019

Milwaukee experienced the largest outbreak of cryptosporidium in the spring of 1993.

The outbreak made 400,000 sick. Over 4,000 were hospitalized. And 104 deaths were recorded. It made a lasting impression for many who got sick or simply lived through it.

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Cryptosporidium is a type of parasite found throughout many lakes, rivers, streams, and even in soils. Cryptosporidiosis (this is what the sickness is called) causes watery, profuse diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramping and headache. It can be very severe — even fatal. Children, pregnant women, and people who are immunosuppressed, like those with HIV or AIDS, are especially at risk.

“We had many people coming in with severe stomach issues, and the advice given out by a pharmacist or doctor would be to drink water, stay hydrated, drink more water, take Imodium, you’ll feel better in a few days," recalls Dawn, a pharmacy technician in Milwaukee during the outbreak. "We didn't realize that we were kind of perpetuating [it]. It just kept going and going."

In the spring of 1993, thousands of Milwaukee residents suffered from severe flu-like symptoms. While the cause was yet to be identified, pharmacies in the city had difficulty keeping products like Imodium tablets and Pepto-Bismol on the shelves.
Credit Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

For Rita Rosin, the consequences were fatal for her family — she lost both her mother and brother due to complications of cryptosporidiosis.

"My mother had had a bypass surgery and there were complications, so she was on a respirator. So to keep her mouth moist we would dip sponges in tap water and swab out her mouth. And about a week before she passed, she got really sick," Rosin recalls. "Just horrible diarrhea and she just got weaker and weaker. About a week after that we decided to take her off life support."

Credit Courtesy of UW-Milwaukee Libraries

During the outbreak, Rosin says she wasn't aware of cryptosporidium on the news since so much of her time was spent taking care of her mother. Her brother Richard wasn't living in Milwaukee at the time, but he came to the hospital to visit.

"I can distinctly remember him drinking out of the bubbler outside of [our mother's] room countless times," says Rosin. "He was being treated for HIV. At the time, his T-cells were really good — until the crypto. So, that kind of was the beginning of the end."

"I remember even my mom's funeral we were all sick, but Richard was just never able to recover ... by October he was a shell."

Crypto was especially concerning for pregnant women, like Serena. She was living in Milwaukee during the outbreak and had just gotten out of bed rest.

"[My daughter] was born just before 10 in the morning and I was hit by noon. I couldn't function. I couldn't nurse her because of the anti-nausea meds, so she had been on formula mixed with bottled water that my mom brought down when she came to visit. And [my daughter's] never had Milwaukee tap water."

A cryptosporidium protest marches to City Hall in Milwaukee in 1993.
Credit Image courtesy of Butch Jorgenson

Kathy was a staff nurse at the Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VA). She was working in the acute medicine ward, dealing with patients with chronic illnesses. 

"We still had to come into work and care for others," recalls Kathy. At the time, she says the VA began offering outpatient treatment for people with HIV and AIDS.

"It wasn't just one patient to the morgue, there were many," she says. "The diarrhea that was caused by crypto was so intense that we could not put the electrolytes back into them quicker than they were losing them ... It was just really devastating."

Mitch Haycock recalls, "One day I turn on our faucet and it just came out looking like sewer water. So, I immediately called West Allis Water Department and I was the first person to call in. This was before crypto really came out."

Today, Haycock says his family double-filters their water since he believes the tap water is "just not acceptable for drinking."

"We've always enjoyed living here, but we're always cautious with all of our utilities," adds Haycock.