Water firm apologises for parasite outbreak – as infected woman 'in a dreadful state'

By John Mercury May 16, 2024

South West Water has apologised for a waterborne disease outbreak in Devon after a parasite was found in a key reservoir.

Residents in parts of Brixham and Alston were told to boil their drinking water on Wednesday after the water firm found “small traces” of the parasite cryptosporidium – which causes cryptosporidiosis – in the Hillhead reservoir.

At first, they said the water was safe to drink, but then had to issue a boil notice to 16,000 households and businesses in Brixham, Boohay, Kingswear, Roseland and North West Paignton.

What is the parasite found in Devon drinking water?

Hundreds of people have reported symptoms of cryptosporidiosis on a local Facebook group over the last week.

Amid the chaos caused by the parasite-ridden water, one primary school has closed its doors due to not having drinking water.

The local council confirmed that Eden Park Primary School shut their doors Thursday – but said they were thought to be the only school to have done so.

South West Water has set up two bottled water collection points in Brixham and Paignton – with cars queuing for more than half a mile to reach the front of the line in Brixham.

Chaz Attwood, who lives near the affected reservoir, told Sky News his wife has diabetes and has been ill for 16 days after drinking contaminated water.

Chaz Attwood, a resident near the Brixham reservoir, speaking to Sky News
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‘Keep drinking water. That’s made her worse. We’re in a dreadful state.’

“My wife has been drinking water to keep hydrated because she’s diabetic and the insulin that she’s had to have has doubled, and basically that affected her to start with,” he said.

“So that’s made her worse. We’re in a dreadful state. She was so weak I even phoned 999, and told the guy what was happening because she’d collapsed.”

David Sneyd, who also lives in the Devon town and is immunosuppressed, said he noticed “absolutely nothing until it was announced”.

He added he had stomach cramps “for just over a week” and “didn’t think anything of it until a couple of days ago when it all sort of blew up through social media”.

The cause of the issue is a damaged air valve which may have allowed animal waste or contaminated ground water to enter the water supply, Totnes MP Anthony Mangnall said.

The Conservative MP added: “South West Water believe they have located the source of the issue and initiated a fix but are continuing their investigations and will be testing their network to ensure water is safe.

“The boil water notice is therefore likely to be in place for at least a further six or seven days, with bottled water available throughout this period.”

Leaflets reminding locals in the affected areas to boil their tap water have been sent, but Mr Sneyd told Sky News he only received his on Wednesday night.

David Sneyd, a resident near the Brixham reservoir, showing Sky News a leaflet warning locals to boil their tap water.

Those at most risk are “quite severely immunocompromised” or are children who “do get more problems” from the disease.

The UK Health Security Agency said 22 people are confirmed to have the disease, and as many as 70 other cases of diarrhoea and vomiting in residents and visitors to Brixham are also under investigation. More confirmed cases are expected.

Reporting from Brixham, Sky News’ West of England correspondent Dan Whitehead also found one woman had to rush her son, 13, to the hospital over the outbreak.

He said earlier that GPs in the area have also seen an increased number of calls, and at points run by South West Water, families are only allowed a maximum of six litres of water.

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South West Water workers at the reservoir site of Alston and Hillhead in Brixham, Devon, looking for cryptosporidium.

‘We sincerely apologise’

The leaflet also promises that customers affected will automatically receive a £15 payment from South West Water.

In a statement, the company announced they would increase the compensation to £100 “to say sorry for the stress and worry the situation has caused”.

Laura Flowerdew, South West Water’s chief customer and digital officer, also said “we sincerely apologise for the impact this is having”.

Cryptosporidium. File pic: Jarun011/iStock
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Professor Paul Hunter told Sky News an outbreak of cryptosporidium could last up to a week. File pic: Jarun011/iStock

The company also said it is still working with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and others “to urgently investigate how cryptosporidium is getting into its network”.

Month-long symptoms ‘not unusual’

Professor Paul Hunter, a specialist in medical microbiology at the University of East Anglia, also told Sky News the issue for water supplies could last at least a week, and that “it’s not unusual to be ill for a month” with the disease.

He explained if the parasite cryptosporidium is “a continuous thing” present in water supplies for a prolonged period, then “you’d expect to see more cases”.

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Prof Hunter added there is “no specific treatment” for the disease, which causes diarrhoea symptoms, and “there’s nothing we can do to shorten the length” of time people battle the illness.

He also said most people “will get over it in two to four weeks” and swimming in the ocean is not likely to cause infection.

Those at most risk are “quite severely immunocompromised” or are children who “do get more problems” from the disease.

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