Watch out for E. coli O157:H7 |

Watch out for E. coli O157:H7

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Escherichia. coli or E. coli is a bacteria that is found in your lower intestines. There are many species of E. coli and that are relatively harmless but there are several that can cause disease. One particular strain is called O157:H7 and this strain has a poison which it acquired from a Shigella bacteria. It can cause bloody diarrhea and sudden kidney failures. Somewhere, somehow these two bacteria got together and Shigella passed on a gene for it’s toxin and a new dangerous E. coli was born, multiplied rapidly, and is now found all throughout the food chain. Animals such as cattle, swine, deer chickens, sheep, goats, may harbor this bacteria without any ill effect, shedding them in their feces. Bacteria present on the cow’s udders or on equipment may get into raw milk. Another potential transmitter of E. coli O157:H7 is flies. They hop around on feces and then on your food. The number of organisms required to cause disease is very small.

E. coli O157:H7 has resulted in an estimated 2,100 hospitalizations annually in the United States. The illness is often misdiagnosed; therefore, expensive and invasive diagnostic procedures may need to be performed. Just this month, a woman in Minnesota went into a coma and woke up paralyzed after undercooking and eating a hamburger made by the food giant, Cargill and sold at Sam’s club. Recently there’s been several outbreaks linked to petting zoos and state fairs in the U.K., Vancouver and Denver. In June of this year it O157:H7 was found in refrigerated Nestles Toll House Cookie Dough and there was a huge recall. It has also been found in unpasteurized milk, apple, and orange juice, raw sprouts, lettuce, and salami. Waterborne transmission can occurs through swimming in contaminated lakes, pools, or drinking inadequately treated water. Soft drinks made with contaminated water sickened people at a State fair. The organism is easily transmitted from person to person and has been difficult to control in child day-care centers.

In 1993, an outbreak was traced to contaminated undercooked hamburgers at a fast food restaurant in Seattle and 144 people were hospitalized; 30 developed Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), and 4 died. HUS is a life-threatening condition usually treated in an intensive care unit. Blood transfusions and kidney dialysis are often required. Most people recover in 5-10 days. There is no evidence that antibiotics improve the course of disease, and it is thought that treatment with some antibiotics may cause kidney complications. Anti-diarrheal agents should also be avoided. Of those who develop HUS, one third develop abnormal kidney function, 3-5% die (causing about 61 deaths annually in the USA), a few require long-term dialysis, and another 8% develop other lifelong complications, such as high blood pressure, seizures, blindness, paralysis. There are currently long term studies continuing in Canada, looking at the long term effects of E. coli O157:H7 after approximately 2500 people were infected through the municipal water system in May 2000.

It is important to eat well-cooked ground beef. Ordering a hamburger rare is a risk! During the slaughtering process, the contents of intestines or fecal material could mix with the meat and when ground, expose multiple surfaces to the bacteria. Although meat companies and grocers are not allowed to sell beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, there has been lax testing on the part of beef processing plants, and flaws in beef inspection. Ground beef is much more likely to be a source of infection than steak. In steak only the surface area of a cut is exposed during butchering, and cooking the outside affects the entire exposed portion, therefore ordering a rare steak is safer than a rare burger.

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.

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