'Hundreds' fall ill with stomach bug in West Country town outbreak

Brixham Harbour
Brixham Harbour -Credit:DevonLive

An investigation has been launched into a suspected outbreak of cryptosporidium in a West Country town after 'hundreds' have reportedly fallen ill, with social media comments highlighting the scale of the issue. The illness is characterised by symptoms such as severe diarrhoea, stomach pains, nausea or vomiting, a slight fever, and loss of appetite, typically lasting one to two weeks.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is at the forefront of the probe in the Devon seaside resort of Brixham but has not yet confirmed specifics regarding the outbreak. Meanwhile, South West Water (SWW) has assured that their tests on Brixham's drinking water quality have returned clear results.

Cryptosporidium, which can reside in the intestines and faeces of infected humans and animals, is often spread through contaminated water for swimming or drinking, but it can also be transmitted via contaminated food.

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A spokesperson for South West Water said: "We are aware of posts on social media regarding the quality of drinking water in the Brixham area and we would like to reassure customers that the water supply is fine to continue to use as normal. We have carried out sampling and tests for cryptosporidium and all results have come back clear," as reports Devon Live.

They added, "We always carefully monitor our drinking water supplies and we are supporting the UK Health Security Agency with their investigations."

The exact number of cryptosporidium cases in the area remains unconfirmed, but the Brixham Fish Town community Facebook page is awash with residents reporting symptoms. Paignton locals have also begun to share their experiences of illness on Facebook.

DevonLive has heard from numerous Brixham inhabitants about the prolonged sickness they're enduring and its negative effects on their daily lives. A significant number of these cases appear to be concentrated in Higher Brixham.

Suffering from stomach cramps and diarrhoea for the last nine days, Tanya, who is awaiting a test for cryptosporidium, shared: "I started having stomach cramps and explosive diarrhoea nine days ago and it has been the same every day since. I started to feel a little bit better yesterday then today [May 14] it hit me again."

She added, after contacting SWW on May 13: "I rang SWW yesterday [May 13] and I was told there had been 15 confirmed cases of cryptosporidium and that UKHSA are looking into it as they don't believe it's to do with the water."

"They wouldn't expect this many cases over a whole year for all of Devon and Cornwall so something is amiss. SWW asked if I had been in the sea or a river but I have not. I also think the water tastes funny and it has been leaving a horrid taste in my mouth."

On May 13, Tanya took to Brixham Fish Town Facebook page to gauge how many others were experiencing similar issues. Her post garnered more than 1,000 comments with numerous individuals reporting similar symptoms.

Tanya explained: "I posted about it to see how many other people may have/ had these symptoms without realising and thinking it's just a tummy bug. I know some people have been to GP's and been told they have food poisoning which most likely is not the case so have not been asked for a sample to have it tested."

"When SWW came out today they told me they don't think it's the water. I don't know how that's possible when every house in our street has someone who is ill. So many people are sick in the area."

"My husband has it too. My son is doing his GCSE's and I'm worried about what happens if he gets poorly too."

Another resident of Ocean Drive, Kayley Lewis, shared that her entire family is suffering from symptoms associated with cryptosporidium.

She revealed: "My eldest son Jacob was the first one of us to be poorly. He ended up in hospital overnight with severe dehydration on May 5. I then started to feel unwell on May 6 and had awful stomach pains and watery diarrhoea lasting six days."

"My other son Oscar is doing his SATS exams this week but I am having to drop him off just to sit his exam and then pick him up due to him still having diarrhoea and cramps. Both my boys have missed a lot of school due to it too."

"My youngest daughter Daisy has only had stomach cramps. I took in my sample this morning to the doctors and they have said every sample is now going to a team that is investigating."

A Hillhead, Brixham resident, who wished to remain anonymous, shared her ordeal of being confined to bed for over a week after testing positive for cryptosporidium.

She recounted: "I've been bed-bound for eight days with sickness and diarrhoea and have been signed off work for two weeks and lost over a stone in weight. It's the worst illness I've ever experienced."

"I originally thought it was noravirus but as it went on for so long, I had to contact the doctors. I sent off a stool sample which came back as cryptosporidium which I had never heard off until I saw the post on Brixham Fish Town."

"I phoned SWW who said it was the first they had heard of it even though everyone has been phoning. Public health have told me I'll be getting a phone call from environmental health but we are still waiting."

"It seems the majority of people affected are from Hillhead and Higher Brixham."

Dean James, residing on Northfields Lane in Furzeham, reported that his family has been suffering since last Saturday, May 11, with the illness now affecting their livelihoods.

A local resident shared his disheartening experience: "It has not been a nice experience. We have had diarrhoea and vomiting, severe stomach cramps, high temperature and gunning a fever. My partner and I are both off work and have no sick pay; my partner has no sick pay for the first three days and I'm self-employed. All this when we are experiencing a high cost of living."

He added, "Some of my neighbours have become suddenly unwell. We have been told to ring public health and report cases and also to boil all water for drinking. Looking at Facebook, cases are now appearing all over Brixham and starting to appear in Paignton too."

An unnamed resident from Brixham expressed her concern: "My whole family - myself, my partner and my two children - have been affected. We have had diarrhoea, stomach cramps and vomiting for more than 10 days, as have many people on our street including several diagnosed cases of cryptosporidium."

She further explained, "It seems to be mainly affecting people in households in Higher Brixham. Whenever you phone SWW, they make out they've only had a 'couple' of reports about it which I know is false. I spoke to our GP at Mayfield Surgery who confirms they have had many cases and have reported it to the relevant authorities as it is so prevalent."

Meanwhile, Totnes MP Anthony Mangnall, whose jurisdiction also covers Brixham, informed DevonLive that he is aware of a string of recent sickness incidents among Brixham residents and has launched enquiries into the matter.

On his official Facebook page, he announced today: "I have been made aware of current concerns regarding the quality of drinking water in Brixham and have been making enquiries. South West Water have reassured me that they are supporting the UK Health Security Agency with their investigations, and have stated that constituents can continue to use their water supply as normal."

"SWW carefully monitors drinking water supplies, and cryptosporidium is monitored continuously in the final drinking water from the supplying treatment facility. To confirm, all recent test results for cryptosporidium have come back clear. I will provide further updates when possible."

UKHSA says its investigation into the source is ongoing and those who have reported symptoms are being contacted for further information as part of investigations into a source. It has issued advice to help halt the spread of the infection.

Sarah Bird, consultant in health protection at UKHSA South West said: "We would like to reassure the public that we are working closely with partners to investigate the possible source of infection and put control measures in place. Further possible cases are under investigation and more cases are anticipated.

"At this stage, a source has not been identified, and more information will be shared as soon as it is available. For most people, cryptosporidium symptoms can be managed at home without medical advice.

"Symptoms include watery diarrhoea, stomach pains, dehydration, weight loss and fever, which can last for two to three weeks. Anyone can get cryptosporidiosis, but it is most common in young children aged between one and five years and most healthy people will recover fully.

"Anyone with a diarrhoeal illness should drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and if they have severe symptoms like bloody diarrhoea, they should contact NHS 111 or their GP surgery. Please stay off school and work for 48 hours since the last episode of illness and away from swimming pools for 14 days after the last episode of illness."

A South West Water spokesperson said: "We are working with UKHSA and other partners supporting their investigation into a number of cases of cryptosporidium in the Brixham area. As part of this, we have reviewed the operation of our water treatment works and the water quality data from those sites which show us there have been no issues with the treated water.

"As agreed today with public health partners, we are carrying out further monitoring of the local supply area and we’ll continue working closely with them on their investigation. We are advising customers to continue to use their water as normal. We will keep this under review."