WASHINGTON (AP) - More than 1,400 Americans may have been sickened with the parasite cyclospora so far this year, most from outbreaks linked to fresh raspberries, lettuce and possibly basil, the government said Wednesday.
The latest patients are about 200 people in a Washington-area outbreak associated with either a basil-pesto sauce or fresh basil served by a gourmet food caterer.
Preliminary figures released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show several hundred more cyclospora patients this year than in 1996 - but it doesn't necessarily mean the bug is increasing. Doctors intensified tracking of cyclospora patients this year to learn more about the mysterious parasitic illness discovered in 1989.
Now health officials are struggling to detect tainted produce to prevent symptoms caused by the parasite, said Food and Drug Administration food safety chief Janice Oliver.
Cyclospora experts meeting Wednesday in Washington suggested a possible way: Track another bug, eimeria, that does not cause sickness but that often accompanies cyclosporae and is easier to detect.
"We are analyzing products (for eimeria) and will continue to do that" to see if it proves a good cyclospora indicator, Oliver said.
Researchers also are testing whether irradiation or ozone treatment would kill the parasite without hurting fresh produce. Cooking kills cyclosporae, and freezing may as well.)
The FDA does not know whether domestic or foreign produce poses the bigger risk. The largest outbreak so far has been from Guatemalan raspberries, but the FDA has been unable to prove the origin of other outbreaks.
Cyclosporae cause diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, fatigue and muscle aches. The illness can last several weeks, and sufferers often need treatment with antibiotics.