The food we eat in Canada is generally very safe. But sometimes it may carry parasites that can make us sick. One such parasite is Cyclospora.

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What is Cyclospora?

Cyclospora is a microscopic single-celled parasite that is passed in people's feces (poop). If it comes in contact with food or water, it can infect the people who consume it. This causes an intestinal illness called cyclosporiasis.

Cyclospora is most common in certain tropical and subtropical countries and regions. It is usually spread in Canada through imported produce that is contaminated with the parasite.

How do people get sick?

Cyclospora is spread when people eat or drink food or water that has been contaminated with infected feces (poop). This often happens when people travel to regions where Cyclospora is common.

Illnesses among travellers can happen at any time of year. In Canada, however, illness due to Cyclospora is more frequent in the spring and summer months.

The parasite needs time to become infectious after it leaves the body. This time can range from a few days to several weeks. For this reason, it is not very likely for Cyclospora to spread directly from person to person.

Some ways that food and drink can be contaminated with Cyclospora include:

  • during the cultivation or harvest of produce,
  • by contact with infected food handlers during packaging,
  • during transportation or preparation, or
  • through contaminated irrigation or tap water.

Previous Canadian and US outbreaks of cyclosporasis have been linked to fresh produce, imported from countries where Cyclospora is native. The most common sources are imported fresh greens, vegetables and fruits such as:

  • basil,
  • cilantro,
  • pre-packaged salad mix,
  • mesclun lettuce,
  • snow peas, and
  • raspberries.

What are the symptoms and treatment?

People infected with Cyclospora can experience different symptoms. Some people do not get sick at all, while others suffer from a severe upset stomach.

Within a week of being infected, most people experience some or all of these symptoms:

  • watery diarrhea,
  • stomach cramps,
  • abdominal bloating and gas,
  • nausea,
  • tiredness,
  • loss of appetite, and
  • weight loss.

If left untreated, the illness can last from a few days to several weeks. Sometimes symptoms may go away, and then return.

When properly treated with antibiotics, the infection responds quickly. But it may take several weeks before a person's stomach returns to normal.

Healthy adults usually do not get seriously sick from cyclosporiasis. However, some people are at risk for a longer or more severe illness:

  • young children,
  • older adults, and
  • people with weakened immune systems.

If you have cyclosporiasis, it is important to drink lots of liquids to replace the body fluids lost to diarrhea. This prevents dehydration.

How do I avoid getting sick?

At home or on vacation, there is no way to tell whether food or drink is contaminated with Cyclospora. It can look, smell and taste normal. The best way to stay safe is to follow these guidelines.

When travelling

  • In a country where Cyclospora is native, drink water only from a safe source. Sealed bottled water is a good option. When this is not available, water should be treated (purified or boiled). Do not trust tap water.
  • Be aware of the danger of food washed in local water. Eat only cooked food, and only fruit that can be peeled.

At home or abroad

  • After using the bathroom, always wash your hands well with soap for 20 seconds. Washing your hands is especially important if you are about to handle food.
  • After preparing raw foods, always wash your hands. Also wash counters, and any cutting boards, knives and utensils you used.
  • Before you prepare and eat vegetables and fruits, wash them thoroughly with clean running water.
  • Use a brush to scrub produce with firm surfaces, like potatoes and carrots (even if you peel them).
  • Scrub rough fruit like oranges and cantaloupes, so the inside is not contaminated when the fruit is peeled or cut.

However, washing produce will not always eliminate Cyclospora, since the parasites can be difficult to remove.

How does the Government of Canada protect me?

Several federal organizations work together to keep your food safe.

  • Health Canada (HC) sets standards and policies to help minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses.
  • The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) enforces these policies and standards. It is responsible for inspecting the food industry, and to ensure that it meets food safety goals. The CFIA works with HC and PHAC to make sure that foodborne illnesses are detected early. They also make sure that the public is quickly warned of the risks.
  • The Public Health Agency of Canada studies the incidence and causes of foodborne illnesses. It monitors any outbreaks, and coordinates the public health response.
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