EDINBURG — Hidalgo County health officials are warning residents about the growing number of parasites found in leafy vegetables that could cause medical concerns for vulnerable populations.
More than 70 cases of cyclosporiasis have been reported to the Hidalgo County Health and Human Services office, chief administrative officer Eddie Olivarez said Monday.
“It’s a public health concern we not only have in the Rio Grande Valley, but in the state of Texas, and even throughout the nation,” Olivarez said. “We’ve had over 70 cases in Hidalgo County; over 300 cases in the state of Texas and there’s over 1,200 cases in the United States. So much so, that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) is concerned about it and putting out alerts in reference to this particular parasite.”
That parasite is called a cyclospora and it causes cyclosporiasis, a gastrointestinal illness marked by frequent bouts of diarrhea, loss of appetite and weight, cramping, bloating and nausea. The small parasite breeds in water contaminated with feces and will get inside leafy vegetables, such as cilantro, basil, raspberries, snow peas and lettuce.
“So if the irrigation water that’s being used to grow the particular crop is infected, or is contaminated with this parasite, the chances of it being in the plants or in the produce are high,” Olivarez said.
In the U.S., foodborne outbreaks of the illness have been linked to imported produce, and it is most commonly found in tropical and subtropical regions, according to information from the CDC.
The county is currently working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to investigate, assess and screen produce coming in through the ports of entry, Olivarez said.
Hidalgo County is home to the busiest international port of entry for produce: the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge. But that doesn’t mean Mexico is to blame, Olivarez said.
“I want to make it very clear, it’s not only Latin America. It’s various parts of the world. We have produce that comes in from pretty much all corners of the world,” he said. “(It) gets shipped in to Mexico and it comes into the U.S. through Mexico, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that is was planted and raised in Mexico.”
Symptoms will usually begin about a week after exposure, and if the illness is not treated, those symptoms can last for several weeks.
“Now, for a healthy person, it’s not an issue,” Olivarez said. “You’ll go through a little bit of discomfort, or a little bit of a nuisance, but when you get an infant or a child or a person who is geriatric with advanced medical complications, that diuretic condition can cause dehydration and cause other medical complications.”
The same goes for those with immunocompromised systems and those with advanced medical conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“They could dehydrate very quickly and that’s a concern,” Olivarez said.
Still, there are three simple things residents can do to prevent getting sick: wash, prepare and store vegetables adequately.
Hands, cutting boards, utensils, countertops and dishes should be washed with water and soap before and after handling food products. The same goes for the vegetables. They can be washed with water, a mild soap or even vinegar, Olivarez said, adding firm fruits like melons and cucumbers should be scrubbed with a clean produce brush.
Once cooked, it’s also important to store and refrigerate food products within two hours.
And if the leafy product is being purchased outside of a traditional grocery store, like from an organic vendor or an outside market, customers should ask about its origin.
“Question (them) about the water source — where this produce came from. Did it come from other countries or the U.S.? How was it irrigated? How was it taken care of?” Olivarez said. “If it doesn’t look right or if it doesn’t smell right, it’s probably not in good condition. So don’t buy that.”
For more information about the foodborne illness, visit www.cdc.gov/parasites/cyclosporiasis.