TODAY   |  July 25, 2013

Outbreak of food-borne parasite spreads across US

Intestinal issues caused by a parasite called cyclospora is popping up around the U.S. Doctors have yet to identify the source but it is most commonly spread by fruit and vegetables. NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports.

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>>> health officials are investigating the outbreak of a dangerous intestinal illness that popped up in at least nine states. nbc's chief medical editor dr. nancy snyderman has the details.

>> this comes from a little parasite called cyclosporin that can get in the food stream. it can spread from person to person when they eat contaminated foods. so are far the number of cases is relatively small, but it has popped up around the country, and doctors are on alert.

>> reporter: the parasite can be nasty, causing food-like symptoms that can last for up to a month. doctors say the outbreak is spreading.

>> we're having to do multiple different diagnostic tests to isolate this particular parasite, and there seems to be only one antibiotic that's effective.

>> reporter: doctors haven't identified the source of the current outbreak or even whether these cases are connected, but cyclospora is most commonly spread by contaminated fruits and vegetables. shopping for produce, this mother wonders if cyclospora made her daughter sick.

>> my daughter was at the pediatrician yesterday with stomach cramps and nausea.

>> reporter: so far, according to centers for disease control , at least 275 cases have been diagnosed in nine states from new jersey to texas. most of the cases occurring between mid-june and early july. symptoms include diarrhea, loss of appetite, nausea, and fatigue. in texas, paul littlejohn believes some grapes may have made him sick.

>> those are them.

>> reporter: when his symptoms persisted, he asked his doctor about it.

>> and he said, yeah, there is an intestinal bug going around. so you probably have that.

>> reporter: but, in fact, these symptoms can be caused by a number of illnesses. so know for certain if you have the cyclospora parasite, you need to see the doctor and get a specific test.

>> this is an endemic illness. that is, it's just occurring right now. people need to be concerned, but there's no need for panic widespread.

>> i'm a little surpriseded it's getting so much attention with only 275 cases, 10 hospitalizations. are officials concerned this could spread rapidly?

>> in some cases, the numbers are going down. in some cases, there's an uptick. because we're coming to fresh fruits and vegetable time and people are importing produce, that's a concern.

>> you get it from fruits and vegetables that have been tainted. once a person gets it, can that person transmit it to another person?

>> most likely, if you don't wash your hands , yes. but it's most likely ingesting contaminated fruits and vegetables. one antibiotic works, but it is an old school antibiotic, and it works well. not a high death rate. but people who are sick are really sick.

>> if you thoroughly wash the fruits and vegetables are you okay?

>> this is not going to come from your local farmers market. a lot of times these come from other countries. even when you get the prewashed greens, don't believe it. wash them again.

>> nancy, thanks very much. good