How Pools, Playgrounds Dole Out Diarrhea Disease

Kids love wading pools and playgrounds with sprinklers, but so do parasites.

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention links recreational water parks to a record 134 outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis in two years. That’s 13,966 cases of watery diarrhea.

Cryptosporidiosis, or crypto for short, is caused by cryptosporidium — a microscopic parasite spread through feces. Pool and fountain water gets contaminated “when a person has a fecal incident in the water or fecal material washes off of a swimmer’s body,” the CDC report explains.

The parasite can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, dehydration and even nausea.

“Eventually it gets better by itself,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Just stay hydrated, rest your tummy and you’ll get over it in a few days.”

The outbreaks reported by the CDC occurred in 2007 and 2008 — the most recent years for which stats are available. The report reveals a 72 percent hike in crypto cases compared to the previous two-year period — a rise Schaffner said likely reflects better monitoring.

“I think we’re looking harder and we’re making a greater effort to diagnose diarrheal illness in children investigate possible sources,” he said. “There’s been greater recognition that recreational water can indeed be source of cryptosporidium.”

Drinking water is thoroughly screened for crypto in light of a 1993 outbreak in Milwaukee that sickened more than 400,000 people.

“I think they almost ran out of toilet paper,” Schaffner said.

Although crypto is usually pretty harmless, it is hard to get rid of in pool water.

‘The kinds of chlorination we use will not phase this organism,” said Schaffner. “So prevention is terribly important.”

Schaffner said parents should keep a close eye on diapered kids to avoid accidents in pools.

“Make sure you check their diapers before they go into the pool or fountain,” said Schaffner, adding that kids love to sit on sprinklers — a small pleasure that can quickly propel parasites out of dirty diapers.

“It’s not uncommon for kids to sit on jets and basically rinsing out their diapers and their rear ends,” said Michele Hlavsa, chief of CDC’s Healthy Swimming Program and lead author of the report. “I don’t think people realize that the water’s recirculated; what’s going down that drain is going be spraying right back at you.”

To protect yourself and others from waterborne illness, wash thoroughly before hitting the pool or splash park and again after using the bathroom or changing diaper, and avoid swallowing the water.

“And if your child does have a fecal accident in the pool, by all means report it,” said Schaffner. “Don’t be embarrassed. Or be embarrassed but report it anyway.”

Newer pools often have a separate, shallow play area for kids that can be quickly drained, cleaned and refilled after an accident.

Finally, kids and grownups with diarrhea should stay out of public water, whether it’s a pool, fountain or lake.

“It should go without saying,” Schaffner said. “But sometimes it needs to be said.”

Check out CDC’s healthy swimming website for more safety tips.

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