Cryptosporidia are intestinal parasites infecting a variety of animals (e.g. cattle, sheep, rodents, cats and dogs, but also birds, fish and reptiles). Human infections occur due to Cryptosporidium parvum, a species that also affects domestic animals.
In humans, infections without symptoms are common. Especially healthy individuals, may, after an incubation period averaging one week, get a diarrhoea that spontaneously resolves over a couple of weeks. By contrast, patients with impaired immune system may develop profuse, life-threatening, watery diarrhoea that is very difficult to treat with currently available drugs.
Person-to-person or animal-to-person disease transmission occurs mainly through contaminated water and food. Cryptosporidium eggs (oocysts) can survive for months in moist soil or water and survive harsh environmental conditions (e.g. heat, cold, droughts) for extended periods of time.
Outbreaks have been reported in hospitals, day-care centres, within households, among bathers (affecting participants in water sports in lakes and swimming pools), and in municipalities with contaminated public water supplies. Water distribution systems are particularly vulnerable to contamination with Cryptosporidium, which can survive most disinfection procedures such as chlorination.