There's a more serious illness – cryptosporidiosis – that is increasing across the nation. The number of cases has also dramatically risen in South Dakota, according to Dr. Lon Kightlinger, state epidemiologist for the South Dakota Department of Health.
The disease is caused by a microscopic parasite called Cryptosporidium and outbreaks in the past have been linked to contaminated recreational water such as swimming pools and water parks. There has been no specific common exposure in the South Dakota cases.
Travis Slaba, PA-C, of the Sanford Vermillion Medical Clinic, said despite the jump in statewide numbers, he so far hasn't treated anyone with the illness recently.
"I have had a few cases over the past one to two years," he said. "But I know it is on the rise."
As of mid-September, there were 108 cases of cryptosporidiosis reported in South Dakota in 2007. The median annual number of cases seen in the state for the last five years has been significantly less at only 31.
"It is one of the more common infections," Slaba said. "It is the second most common gastro-intestinal infection, and it can infect mammals, reptiles, birds and fish, and generally, people often use the generic name of stomach flu with it, which is actually gastroenteritis."
People stricken with cryptosporidiosis usually suffer from fatigue, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea.
The disease is spread in human and animal feces. Risk factors include contact with infected animals, household contact with an infected individual, drinking unpasteurized milk or fruit juices and eating unwashed vegetables and fruits.
Swallowing lake or river water, or waterpark, swimming pool or hot tub water is also a risk factor.
"If you are healthy and your immune system is wonderful or competent, the illness will usually only last a few days," Slaba said. "The big thing you worry about are people without a highly competent immune system, such as the really, really young, or the really, really old."
These higher risk patients are more likely to suffer dehydration as they battle the illness for a longer period of time. "From there, things can get a lot worse," Slaba said.
Unlike bacterial or viral infections, which can be treated to some extent with medications, the best cure for this parasitic illness is tender loving care.
And lots of fluids.
"If you're a healthy individual, it simply takes time and you have to drink a lot of fluids," Slaba said. "You have to be careful with anti-diarrhetic medication. You don't want to take a lot of this type of medication simply because you don't want to keep this parasite up in the intestine; you want to let it go out and just get rid of it."
The incubation for the illness is usually seven to 10 days, but it can last as long as five to 28 days.
Young people and adults with compromised immune systems may be treated with an anti-parasitic medication, he said.
The state health department recommends the following measures to prevent the spread of this illness:
- Wash your hands after toilet use and before eating.
- Avoid recreational swimming facilities if you have diarrhea.
- Don't swallow pool or lake water.
- Wash hands after contact with animal feces.
- Wash vegetables and fruits before eating.