Protozoal agents: what are the dangers for the public water supply?

Annu Rev Med. 1997;48:329-40. doi: 10.1146/


Safe and efficient treatment of drinking water has been one of the major public health advances of the twentieth century. People in developed countries generally take for granted that their water is safe to drink, a luxury the majority of the world's population does not have. The leading cause of infant mortality in the developing world is infectious diarrhea, and the prevalence of diarrheal pathogens is largely influenced by the quality and quantity of clean water available for drinking and washing. Until recently, modern water treatment had all but eliminated these concerns in developed nations. Over the past two decades, however, the safety of our water supply has been threatened by the emergence of Cryptosporidium parvum, a protozoal pathogen. The hearty oocysts of this organism survive chlorination and filtration to cause a diarrheal illness that, while unpleasant enough in healthy people, is devastating in immunocompromised individuals. The 1993 Milwaukee outbreak, in which 403,000 people developed diarrhea from drinking water that met all the updated federal safety standards, demonstrated the tremendous public health importance of this organism. While earlier attention had focused on Giardia and amebic infections, the other "emerging" protozoan besides Cryptosporidium is Cyclospora. This review discusses the protozoal pathogens, including Cryptosporidium parvum, Giardia lamblia, Entamoeba histolytica, and Cyclospora cayetanensis, that cause waterborne diarrheal outbreaks and the threats they pose to the public.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cryptosporidiosis / transmission*
  • Cryptosporidium parvum* / pathogenicity
  • Entamoebiasis / transmission*
  • Giardiasis / transmission*
  • Host-Parasite Interactions
  • Humans
  • Water Microbiology*
  • Water Purification