Infections in Devon water parasite outbreak to keep rising for weeks, public health boss warns

The number of people infected with a waterborne disease following a parasite outbreak in south Devon is likely to increase for up to two weeks, a public health boss has warned.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said on Friday that 46 cases of cryptosporidium, a disease that can cause unpleasant symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting, had been confirmed in Brixham after people drank water feared to be contaminated with a waterborne parasite.

Around 16,000 households and businesses were told not to use their tap water for drinking without boiling and cooling it first, as more cases are anticipated.

South West Water (SWW) said on Saturday afternoon around 14,500 households in the Alston supply area can now use their tap water safely, although some 2,500 properties in Hillhead, upper parts of Brixham and Kingswear should continue to boil their supply before drinking it.

Residents of the fishing town have complained of a lack of contact SWW and its chief executive, Susan Davy, was forced to apologise for the outbreak on Friday, saying she was “truly sorry”.

Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall, whose Totnes constituency includes Brixham, vowed that “heads are going to roll” after “an absolutely disastrous week”, describing the anger as “palpable”.

Lincoln Sargeant, Torbay’s director of public health, warned that while the initial contamination has been “more or less dealt with”, delays in symptoms developing may cause the number of cases to increase for “up to two weeks”.

He said the waterborne disease was “unpleasant but self-limiting” for most people, while it was “vulnerable people who are at risk for more severe illness”.

Dr Sargeant added: “It’s important for listeners to recognise that in terms of the initial contamination that we think is more or less dealt with. So with the boiled water notice, with bottled water, we are pretty sure now that no one needs to continue to be affected by contaminated water.

“And we know that South West Water is now actively doing work to flush through the system to make sure that ongoing contamination does not occur.

“However, it’s important to recognise that people may continue to develop symptoms from that initial contamination up to 10 days, some people even up to two weeks, so the numbers may increase – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the situation is getting worse.”

SWW issued a “boil water notice” for Alston and the Hillhead area of Brixham after water tests showed “small traces” of the parasite.

SWW chief customer officer Laura Flowerdew said on Thursday that a damaged air pipe in a field containing cattle was a potential source.

Speaking on Saturday, Mr Mangnall said: “This is such a serious matter that yes, I think heads are going to roll over this, but it’s more important to get the system back up and running, make sure people have confidence in the network rather than pointing fingers.

“We do the investigation afterwards and we will make sure that those who are responsible are held to account.”

He added: “From starting this week with a denial from South West Water that it was anything to do with them, delaying the fact that the boil water notice came in, meaning thousands of people used the water network, to then issuing it on Wednesday, and there are a lot of people who are very ill.

“So, it’s been an absolutely disastrous week and the anger is palpable.”

The water company said the decision to withdraw the boil water notice on Saturday came after “rigorous testing” and was made in consultation with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the local authority’s environmental health department.

SWW chief customer officer Laura Flowerdew said: “Following rigorous testing this week, it is now safe to lift the boil water notice in the Alston water supply area. This decision has been supported by the government’s public health experts and the local authority’s environmental health department.

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