Home Health & Wellness Hundreds Fall Ill in Devon as Water Parasite Outbreak Sparks Health Crisis

Hundreds Fall Ill in Devon as Water Parasite Outbreak Sparks Health Crisis

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Residents of Brixham and surrounding areas in Devon have been advised to boil their drinking water after an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis, a severe diarrheal disease caused by the parasite cryptosporidium. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) confirmed 22 cases of the disease, with dozens more suspected. South West Water (SWW) has urged caution as the parasite continues to plague the local water supply.

The alarm was raised when 22 cases of the disease were confirmed and the presence of cryptosporidium was detected in the water supply of Brixham and nearby villages, including Alston, Hillhead, Boohay, Kingswear, Roseland, and north-east Paignton. Initially, South West Water insisted that their treatment works was not to blame and that the water was safe to drink. However, this stance has since been reversed following further tests.

“Small traces of the organism identified overnight and this morning,” said South West Water. The company has set up bottled water distribution points, including one at the Broadsands Beach car park in Paignton, and assured residents that all customers under the Boil Water Notice would receive a £15 automatic payment.

Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that can cause cryptosporidiosis, a highly infectious disease leading to severe stomach pains, watery diarrhoea, vomiting, dehydration, weight loss, and fever. The UKHSA warns that while healthy individuals might recover within a few weeks, those with compromised immune systems, young children, and the elderly could face severe complications.

Residents have described their experiences with the illness as debilitating. Tanya Matthews from Higher Brixham noted: “I started having stomach cramps and explosive diarrhoea nine days ago and it has been the same every day since. I started to feel a little bit better yesterday, then today it hit me again.”

Another resident, Ms Henderson, described her ordeal: “Last week I had such bad diarrhoea it was crazy. My diarrhoea was completely clear; it was just clear water. When you have diarrhoea, you get dehydration. So I was drinking more water to stay hydrated, so I was obviously feeding the illness more.”

Local social media groups have been flooded with posts from affected individuals, with one post on the Brixham Fish Town Facebook group attracting over 1,200 comments. Many residents shared similar symptoms, indicating a widespread impact.

The UK Health Security Agency and South West Water are collaborating to identify and eliminate the source of the parasite. Sarah Bird, a consultant in health protection at UKHSA South West, said: “We advise people in the affected areas to follow the advice from South West Water and boil their drinking water and allow it to cool before use. Anyone with a diarrhoeal illness should drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and if they have severe symptoms like bloody diarrhoea, they should contact NHS 111 or their GP surgery.”

Bird emphasised the importance of hygiene in preventing the spread of the disease. She advised thorough handwashing with soap, washing bedding and towels on the hottest possible cycle, and avoiding food preparation for others until symptom-free for at least 48 hours. Those affected should also stay away from swimming pools for 14 days after the last episode of illness.

Residents have expressed frustration and concern over the handling of the outbreak. Tanya Matthews shared her disbelief: “SWW asked if I had been in the sea or a river but I have not. I also think the water tastes funny and it has been leaving a horrid taste in my mouth.”

Local MP Anthony Mangnall criticised the water company’s initial response. “It is enormously frustrating that South West Water weren’t quicker to respond at the first point at when this was reported. It started with an initial denial that it was anything to do with their network and of course they have now found the cryptosporidium in their network and they are responding,” he said.

Mangnall urged the company to resolve the issue swiftly and ensure support for residents both now and in the future. “What I want to see is for them to address the problem, fix it as quickly as possible and make sure the support for residents is there both now and into the future so they can have confidence in their drinking water,” he added.

The source of the contamination remains unknown. Cryptosporidium can enter water supplies through various means, including contamination from animal faeces in reservoirs and rivers. The parasite is particularly resilient, being resistant to chlorine and difficult to filter out due to its small size.

Sarah Bird of UKHSA stated, “At this stage, a source has not been identified, and more information will be shared as soon as it is available. For most people, cryptosporidium symptoms can be managed at home without needing medical advice.”

In response to the crisis, residents are advised to boil all water for drinking, cooking, and brushing teeth until further notice. SWW has apologised for the inconvenience and pledged to keep the community informed. They have also committed to delivering bottled water to vulnerable residents registered for priority attention.

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