June 13, 2024

Infections in Devon 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.

Residents of the fishing town have complained of a lack of contact from the area’s water supplier South West Water (SWW). 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”.

Bottled water at Freshwater car park in Brixham (PA)

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.

Workers at Hill Head reservoir in Devon (PA)

“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.

Brixham harbour in south Devon (PA)

“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.”

Business owners in the fishing town have complained about the lack of contact from SWW.

Sally Dart, who runs homeware shop Flotsam 50 near Brixham harbour, said business was “probably 30 to 40 per cent down” and described the water company as “appalling”.

Retailer Sally Dart was scathing about the water company, saying business was 30 to 40 per cent down (PA)

Ms Dart said locals first felt symptoms after a busy pirate festival held in the fishing town between 4 and 6 May.

“They knew they had this problem – obviously the reservoir couldn’t cope for some reason or another, it was getting all the stuff off the field into it. No one was checking the quality of the water and we’ve all got sick and it’s stupid, really,” she said.

Steve Price, who runs The Station Guest House in Brixham, said his business was “following all the guidance” to ensure visitors’ safety, adding: “So we’re trying everything we can to make sure that when guests do come that they feel comfortable and they feel safe. We’re also emailing all our guests at the moment to let them know we’re doing all this to try and put them at ease, to encourage them still to come and visit us because of course it’s a lovely area.”

Asked about what contact his business had with SWW, Mr Price said there had been “nothing direct at all. We’ve had to instigate any contact, there has been notifications coming from Torbay Council about numbers to contact but it’s a shame for commercial businesses because we’ve had no one come round”.

Asked how much his business had lost, he said: “So far, probably anywhere from up to £1,000 in cancellations so far.”

Residents are being urged to boil water and let it cool before drinking it, preparing or cooking food or cleaning their teeth, although the company said water can continue to be used as normal for washing, bathing and flushing the toilet.

The disease can be picked up directly from the faeces of another person or animal, from swimming in or drinking contaminated water, or by eating contaminated food such as unwashed vegetables.

David Harris, Drought and Resilience Director at South West Water, told The Independent: “Our overriding priority must be the health and safety of our customers. Over the past four days, we have been working tirelessly to identify and resolve this issue. We are deeply sorry for the impact this disruption is having on daily lives.”

He said there are two water collection points set up over the weekend, with more than 386,000 bottles of water delivered so far, while a compensation payment of £115 is being issued to customers.

He continued: “As part of our ongoing investigation, a damaged valve on private land has been identified as the possible cause, which has since been isolated from the network and repaired. As you would expect, we are urgently investigating how this happened, while working to rule out any other possible sources of contamination elsewhere in the network.

“The water tank at Hillhead reservoir, where tests confirmed the presence of cryptosporidium earlier this week, was drained overnight and will be thoroughly cleaned today. Once complete, we will start refilling the water tank later today. Officials from the Drinking Water Inspectorate are also on site to monitor progress, and daily testing continues to take place at points throughout our network.”

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