ZEELAND, Mich. (WOOD) — The Ottawa County Health Department said there has been an outbreak of a parasite commonly found in water and near farm animals. Three people who volunteered at the Critter Barn in Zeeland got sick several weeks ago.

“The first Monday of spring break, I worked there feeding the animals and cleaning out the areas where they were and spreading straw down,” said one volunteer. 

It didn’t take long before she started to feel sick.

“Bloating and gas and burping, just a very unpleasant thing to have you just want to curl up in the fetal position. The pain is that bad,” she said.

The woman, who News 8 is not naming to protect her identity, said it all happened just in time for her vacation. 

“It was not a pleasant experience for me or for the people taking care of me on the plane,” she said. 

The woman is one of the three Critter Barn volunteers now have confirmed cases of Cryptosporidium.

Ottawa County sees several cases of the parasite each year. The symptoms can be similar to other illnesses, like the Norovirus including watery diarrhea, stomach cramps or pain, dehydration, nausea, vomiting, fever and weight loss. 

“The big difference is, for Crypto, the symptoms will begin an average of two to 10 days — an average of seven — after you were exposed and then your symptoms will last one to two weeks for someone with a healthy immune system,” said Adeline Hambley, Ottawa County Health officer.

“If you or anyone in your family have had these symptoms and recently visited the Critter Barn, please consult your healthcare provider for a diagnosis and tell them about your possible connection with these Crypto cases,” the department urges. “If you have these symptoms, please avoid swimming or being around people with weaker immune systems until your healthcare provider tells you it is safe to do so.”

The Ottawa County Health Department is now investigating the origin of this outbreak. A team went onsite last week to check out the Critter Barn.

“There is not a clear linkage but for the three cases that we have that are not related households, there is commonality that they share,” said Hambley. “So that is why we reached out with the investigation — suggests that is the commonality, that they share exposure.” 

The founder of the Critter Barn said they are struggling to find where the parasite came from. 

“I know things we did correctly,” said Mary Rottschafer, executive director and founder of Critter Barn.

“Then we found out an adult volunteer had it and she actually was helping in the pen we had the negative test in,” said Rottschafer.

The county is now working with the Critter Barn to update cleaning protocols like encouraging handwashing before and after touching the animals and increased education to volunteers. 

“Hydrogen peroxide is added because it’s known to have a really good effect on Crypto, so that is the only thing we are changing and just to be diligent,” said Rottschafer.

“I am not doing this to hurt the Critter Barn,” the volunteer said. “My kids went to the Critter Barn, I love the Critter Barn, but I’m doing it to make everyone aware, including the Critter Barn, that we need safer practices. I already ordered my hydrogen peroxide bleaching wipes.”

In addition to consulting with a healthcare provider, Hambley suggests people consider reporting their illness to the Ottawa County Department of Public Health’s online complaint system found by visiting their site and clicking the red “report a concern” button.