KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Zoo Knoxville's water tested negative for a rare parasite weeks after a child who played in the Kids Cove play stream later contracted cryptosporidium, according to the Knox County Health Department.
After learning about the child's diagnosis on June 27, the zoo said it shut down the play stream in the Kids Cove area and contacted KCHD to test the water. On Wednesday, KCHD told the zoo the tests came back negative for the cryptosporidium parasite.
The child was diagnosed with the parasite days after visiting the zoo. The child’s mother, Jennifer Zielke, said her son tested positive for Cryptosporidium and C-Diff, a kind of bacteria that causes diarrhea. It is still not clear where exactly the child contracted the parasite.
Zielke took her son to Zoo Knoxville on June 24. Two days later, she says he began showing symptoms.
“Initially, we just noticed that about every ten to 15 minutes he would cry. He is non-verbal so he has no way to communicate what is actually going on," she said. “I was changing him and I noticed there was a lot of blood and mucus in his stool. Immediately the first call was to the pediatrician’s office.”
He was diagnosed with the parasite, which is chlorine-resistant and mostly spreads through water. It can make swimmers sick for weeks, depending on their age and whether their immune systems are compromised. The most common symptom is watery diarrhea, according to the CDC.
They said symptoms can last for up to two weeks among people with healthy immune systems. Other symptoms include stomach cramps, dehydration, nausea, vomiting, fever and weight loss.
The day after Ziekle's son started showing symptoms, KCHD said it began contact tracing.
“My son is special needs so we don’t really go many places. The only place we had gone in the month of June that had water involved was the zoo. The little lazy river area back by the beavers," Zielke said.
She said she immediately notified the zoo after the diagnosis.
“There was no blame being placed. I didn’t call saying he definitely got it from there. It was, I know that he was definitely in that water I didn’t want anyone else to go through what we had to go through," Zielke said. "We received notification from our health insurance that none of the testing was going to be covered, that it was not medically necessary and that we would be paying out of pocket for it."
Her son was recovering but she said she is now stuck with a $3,000 medical bill. That mom said she's going to go back to the insurance company to see if anything can be done to cover the cost.
Out of an abundance of caution after shutting down Kids Cove, the zoo simultaneously tested the goats and sheep in the area for cryptosporidium. Veterinarians and parasitologists at the University of Tennessee gave them a clean bill of health.
Zoo Knoxville also said they have their own, in-house water sanitation protocols. They said they follow guidelines from the Knox County Health Department for public pools and splash pads. They said KCHD also regularly tests the zoo's water.