Surveillance for Waterborne-Disease Outbreaks - United States, 1995-1996

Deborah A. Levy, Michelle S. Bens, Gunther F. Craun, Rebecca L. Calderon, Barbara L. Herwaldt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

181 Scopus citations


Problem/Condition: Since 1971, CDC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have maintained a collaborative surveillance system for collecting and periodically reporting data that relate to occurrences and causes of waterborne-disease outbreaks (WBDOs). Reporting Period Covered: This summary includes data for January 1995 through December 1996 and previously unreported outbreaks in 1994. Description of the System: The surveillance system includes data about outbreaks associated with drinking water and recreational water. State, territorial, and local public health departments are primarily responsible for detecting and investigating WBDOs and for voluntarily reporting them to CDC on a standard form. Results: For the period 1995-1996, 13 states reported a total of 22 outbreaks associated with drinking water. These outbreaks caused an estimated total of 2,567 persons to become ill. No deaths were reported. The microbe or chemical that caused the outbreak was identified for 14 (63.6%) of the 22 outbreaks. Giardia lamblia and Shigella sonnei each caused two (9.1%) of the 22 outbreaks; Escherichia coli O157:H7, Plesiomonas shigelloides, and a small round structured virus were implicated for one outbreak (4.5%) each. One of the two outbreaks of giardiasis involved the largest number of cases, with an estimated 1,449 ill persons. Seven outbreaks (31.8% of 22) of chemical poisoning, which involved a total of 90 persons, were reported. Copper and nitrite were associated with two outbreaks (9.1% of 22) each and sodium hydroxide, chlorine, and concentrated liquid soap with one outbreak (4.5%) each. Eleven (50.0%) of the 22 outbreaks were linked to well water, eight in noncommunity and three in community systems. Only three of the 10 outbreaks associated with community water systems were caused by problems at water treatment plants; the other seven resulted from problems in the water distribution systems and plumbing of individual facilities (e.g., a restaurant). Six of the seven outbreaks were associated with chemical contamination of the drinking water; the seventh outbreak was attributed to a small round structured virus. Four of the seven outbreaks occurred because of backflow or backsiphonage through a cross-connection, and two occurred because of high levels of copper that leached into water after the installation of new plumbing. For three of the four outbreaks caused by contamination from a cross-connection, an improperly installed vacuum breaker or a faulty backflow prevention device was identified; no protection against backsiphonage was found for the fourth outbreak. Thirty-seven outbreaks from 17 states were attributed to recreational water exposure and affected an estimated 9,129 persons, including 8,449 persons in two large outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis. Twenty-two (59.5%) of these 37 were outbreaks of gastroenteritis; nine (24.3%) were outbreaks of dermatitis; and six (16.2%) were single cases of primary amebic meningoencephalitis caused by Naegleria fowleri, all of which were fatal. The etiologic agent was identified for 33 (89.2%) of the 37 outbreaks. Six (27.3%) of the 22 outbreaks of gastroenteritis were caused by Cryptosporidium parvum and six (27.3%) by E. coli O157:H7. All of the latter were associated with unchlorinated water (i.e., in lakes) or inadequately chlorinated water (i.e., in a pool). Thirteen (59.1%) of these 22 outbreaks were associated with lake water, eight (36.4%) with swimming or wading pools, and one(4.5%) with a hot spring. Of the nine outbreaks of dermatitis, seven (77.8%) were outbreaks of Pseudomonas dermatitis associated with hot tubs, and two (22.2%) were lake-associated outbreaks of swimmer's itch caused by Schistosoma species. Interpretation: WBDOs caused by E. coli O157:H7 were reported more frequently than in previous years and were associated primarily with recreational lake water. This finding suggests the need for better monitoring of water quality and identification of sources of contamination. Although protozoan parasites, especially Cryptosporidium and Giardia, were associated with fewer reported outbreaks than in previous years, they caused large outbreaks that affected a total of approximately 10,000 persons; all of the outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis were associated with recreational water, primarily swimming pools. Prevention of pool-associated outbreaks caused by chlorine-resistant parasites (e.g., Cryptosporidium and to a lesser extent Giardia) is particularly difficult because it requires improved filtration methods as well as education of patrons about hazards associated with fecal accidents, especially in pools frequented by diaper-aged children. The proportion of reported drinking water outbreaks associated with community water systems that were attributed to problems at water treatment plants has steadily declined since 1989 (i.e., 72.7% for 1989-1990, 62.5% for 1991-1992, 57.1% for 1993-1994, and 30.0% for 1995-1996). This decrease might reflect improvements in water treatment and in operation of plants. The outbreaks attributed to contamination in the distribution system suggest that efforts should be increased to prevent cross-connections, especially by installing and monitoring backflow prevention devices. Actions Taken: Surveillance data that identify the types of water systems, their deficiencies, and the etiologic agents associated with outbreaks are used to evaluate the adequacy of current technologies for providing safe drinking and recreational water. In addition, they are used to establish research priorities and can lead to improved water-quality regulations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalMorbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
Issue numberSUPPL. 5
StatePublished - Dec 11 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Health(social science)
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis
  • Health Information Management


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