Cryptosporidiosis refers to infection by the spore-forming protozoan known as Cryptosporidia. Protozoa are a group of parasites that infect the human intestine, and include the better known Giardia. Cryptosporidia was first identified in 1976 as a cause of disease in humans.
Cryptosporidia are normally passed in the feces of infected persons and animals in the form of cysts. The cysts can remain in the ground and water for months, and when ingested produce symptoms after maturing in the intestine and the bile ducts. When viewed under the microscope, they appear as small bluish-staining round bodies. Most common sources of infection are other humans, water supplies, or reservoirs. These are contaminated by animals that defecate in these areas. An out-break in Milwaukee in 1993 in which over 400,000 persons were affected was traced to the city's water supply. Cysts of Cryptosporidia are extremely resistant to the disinfectants that are commonly used in most water treatment plants and are incompletely removed by filtration.
Most persons who experience significant symptoms have an altered immune system, and suffer from diseases such as AIDS and cancer. However, as shown in the Milwaukee outbreak, even those with normal immunity can experience symptoms.
Causes and symptoms
Cysts of Cryptosporidia mature in the intestine and bile ducts within three to five days of ingestion. As noted, large-scale infections from contaminated water supplies has been documented. However, human to human transmission (such as occurs in day care centers or through sexual behavior) is also an important cause.
Many individuals can be infected without any illness, but the major symptom is diarrhea, which is often watery and incapacitating. Dehydration, low-grade fever, nausea, and abdominal cramps are frequent.
In those with a normal immune system, the disease usually lasts about 10 days. For patients with altered immunity (immunocompromised), the story is quite different, with diarrhea becoming chronic, debilitating, and even fatal.
David Kaminstein MD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,