May 15, 2013 Updated: May 15, 2013 at 9:36 am
In the Book of Revelation in the Bible, we are introduced to the Apocalypse as Pestilence, War, Famine and Death; while in football history, we learned from the legendary sportswriter, Grantland Rice, of the invincible Notre Dame football backfield of the "Four Horsemen" consisting of Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden. But the absolute official world championship ring for ferocity and terror rightfully belongs to the mighty waterborne diseases: cholera, E. coli, coliform and cryptosporidium parvum, the quietest, almost invisible and surely sneakiest killers of our times. Want proof?
It was scarcely 20 years ago in a large metropolitan city, when 1,000,000 were infected, 1,000 hospitalized and 100 died. This didn't happen in a Third World country but right here in the United States - in Milwaukee.
The Milwaukee saga was a perfect storm of perfect storms. It began peacefully enough, as a typical series of 1997 spring rains, but along one of the key rivers leading to Milwaukee's water supply, a saturated bank sheared off, providing a waiting dairy herd an easy path down into the river.
Doing what cows do naturally, they quenched their thirst, guzzling the cool fresh water, and then blissfully voided their systems right into a primary source of Milwaukee's drinking water. You should know that cows and calves are the primary carriers of crypto.
The first alarms heard were the reports from hundreds of folks with extremely painful and bloody diarrhea. The hospitals were soon overloaded while medical and water professional pondered "what happened?" Milwaukee hospitals were running out of beds, and patients were sent as far away as Chicago.
Questions overwhelmed the water and medical experts: Was this an epidemic? How were the people infected? Why were children and people with AIDS so susceptible?
Tests and yet more tests were run, hundreds of cultures were examined for the usual culprits causing diarrhea, all to no avail. This pathogen was destroying intestinal linings and creating a bloody hell of pain.
Experts surmised that the common source could be . the water, and then someone wondered about crypto and began the laborious slide preparations and examinations under powered microscopes. The county health manager identified the oocyst as cryptosporidium, and then it was imperative to learn when the water supply was infested. Water samples done at water filtration plants and labs had tested superior to EPA standards, and thus few samples were kept.
One health hero had the stellar brain wave to not simply look for or check existing lab water samples but to pursue tests of "frozen" water at local ice plants where the plastic bags were all date stamped. Once he had thawed and tested those samples, he was able to definitely determine the date on which the epidemic had started. Medical people were then able to more effectively treat the patients, knowing how long they had held the bug in their systems.
Chlorine doesn't kill all crypto in water, and it requires a fancy chemical named Nitazoxanide to combat the parasite. It also requires a trained lab person to prepare slides to even see the oocyst under high magnification. Skeptics can read and learn even more about the horrors of crypto in "The Blue Death" by Dr. Robert Morris.
Water professionals get constant reminders of the Milwaukee story and are continually working to protect us from crypto. We are fortunate in Colorado Springs to have excellent labs, adequately powered microscopes and highly trained people watching over our water safety.
Jack Flobeck is the founder of Aqua Prima Center, a nonprofit think tank for water research. Readers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.