E. coli Outbreak – What You Should Know

June 6th, 2011

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 As of June 3, 2011, more than 10 European nations were simultaneously experiencing outbreaks of enterohemorrhagic E. coli, EHEC, causing significant numbers of illnesses and major economic impacts to the affected nations. Although work is ongoing to characterize the particularly virulent strain of E. coli O104 causing the outbreak and its source, it is currently clear that this strain is causing a truly significant number of infections. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 500 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a form of kidney failure, have been reported and have caused more than a dozen fatalities to date.

Even without the severe consequence of kidney failure, EHEC can still cause moderate health problems, such as abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea, in exposed individuals. So far, at least 2000 people have been affected in Europe.  Should the consumers in the Unites States be concerned about the outbreak? First, let’s talk basics. Most E. coli cases are caused by ingestion of contaminated food. Most commonly, outbreaks that have hit the United States have stemmed from contaminated beef in the form of undercooked hamburgers, produce (i.e., lettuce, coleslaw, apple cider), or unpasteurized dairy products. Transmission in contaminated water can occur, although it is a less frequent source of outbreaks, as can person-to-person transmission, typically in the health and childcare settings. Illness usually occurs within 2-10 days of exposure.

At present, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is anxiously monitoring the situation in Europe, while paying special attention to the potential for this particular E. coli strain to contaminate meat products. Incoming shipments of produce or other products from affected European nations are being scrutinized. Given that the bacterium causing the current European outbreak hasn’t been detected in the United States, it’s unlikely that it will have a significant impact on crops grown this season, but government officials must still remain vigilant to prevent the bacteria from establishing a foothold in North American crops. The only cases of illness observed in the U.S. so far stem from 2 travelers that visited Germany and grew ill after their return to the U.S.

While the European outbreak may not spread to the U.S., it is important to note that there are other domestic E. coli strains, particularly O157, which have caused significant U.S. outbreaks in the past. As backyard barbeque season gets into full swing here in the United States, there are some good habits which can help protect you from food borne illnesses. First, you should wash all produce carefully, particularly when they are consumed raw, and where reasonable, peel off the external layers. Always wash your hands with soap and water between handling beef and produce or working with farm animals and farm equipment. When cooking beef, it is important that the internal temperature reaches at least 155°F for 15-16 seconds. Finally, teaching children good hand hygiene is an excellent protective tool for any number of illnesses.

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