By: Heather Williams

The Southwest Utah Public Health Department is still investigating the cause of the E. coli outbreak in the communities of Hildale, UT and Colorado City, AZ.  The outbreak has 11 residents in sister communities infected and 2 children have died.  Both deaths were children, a 3 year-old boy and a 6 year-old girl.  The young girl’s mother was babysitting the 3 year old boy, a neighbor’s son, when he began to complain of stomach pains and developed diarrhea.  The young girl became sick soon after.

While residents noted that a dog had strewn dirty diapers around the grounds of the property and the children were seen helping to clean it up, there is no known source of the outbreak. The local health department tested the water and all samples came back clean.  While the source of the outbreak is still not known, it appears to be localized to the community.  In a statement posted on Facebook late on July 3, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department said the outbreak “appears to be confined to a limited area of Hildale and the risk to the larger community is not considered to be significant at this time.”

About E. coli

In this outbreak, E. coli, also known as Escherichia coli, is a bacterium that lives in the digestive tracts of human and animals.  The symptoms of E. coli range in severity from strain to strain ranging from mild digestive upset, to bloody diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and even anemia and kidney failure which could become fatal.

Children are more likely to experience more severe symptoms than adults.  Symptoms generally appear 3 to 4 days after exposure and often resolve within a week, even without medical treatment.  Those with more severe complications should seek medical attention immediately.  Symptoms to look out for include pale skin, fever, weakness, bruising, and passing small amounts of urine.

Likely Sources

In the case of the Utah outbreak, the source has still not been determined.  Investigators are searching for a common cause between those who are ill and still have not came to a conclusion other than proximity.  There are many sources that E. coli can be contracted.  These are some of the ways that E. coli can be contracted and some of the possible areas that investigators may look in to.

Meats

Meats can be a source of E. coli infection.  The meat industry has to be cautious of sanitation and cross contamination.  These activities can lead to large amounts of E. coli living on raw meat that is distributed to the public.  In restaurants and homes, meat can be a likely source of E. coli contamination.  Transmission can be avoided or minimized by proper sanitation and washing hands after handling meat, decontaminating any cooking tools and surfaces raw meats come in contact with, and ensuring proper temperature when cooking meats.  Most meats must reach a minimum internal temperature of 165 ⁰F.

Unpasteurized Milk or Cheese

E. coli that lives in livestock feces can contaminate milk during the milking process. These pathogens are killed in the pasteurization process when the milk is heated. Unpasteurized milk may contain pathogens that could infect the consumer.  Milk products such as cheese made from unpasteurized milk are also a likely source of E. coli. Avoid unpasteurized dairy and dairy products.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Fresh fruits and vegetables are another likely source of E. coli infection.  In fact, E. coli outbreaks have been traced back to many fresh fruits and vegetables such as sprouts, lettuce, spinach, parsley, and other fresh produce.  In particular, apples picked from the ground and made into unpasteurized cider and fruit juices have contributed to several E. coli outbreaks.  Fruits and vegetables become contaminated with E. coli from a contaminated water source, some fertilizers, or passive transfer with animal.  Be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables before eating or cutting to minimize risk of infection.  This applies to home garden produce as well as what you buy in the grocery store.  Do not consume unpasteurized fruit juices, as they may be contaminated prior to juicing.

Water

Both recreational water and water intended for human consumption is also another likely source.  Recreational water that becomes contaminated, such as lakes and pools may infect people when they accidentally ingest the bacteria from splashing in the water.  Even a small amount of contaminated water could make some people sick.  It takes several weeks, and sometimes even months for contaminated water to reach safe E. coli levels.  Use caution to not consume water from recreational sources such as lakes and pools.  Wash off and wash your hands after getting out of the water to minimize risk.  Water meant for human consumption may also be contaminated with E. coli.  Public works departments disinfect water before it is sent to homes for human consumption.  Occasionally, water sources become grossly contaminated and a boil notice is in effect.  During that time, people are prompted to boil water before using it to drink or cook with to kill the pathogens in the water until it can be managed.

Animal to Person Contact

Another common source of E. coli infection is animal to person contact.  The bacteria live inside of the digestive tract of many animals, making them hosts to these harmful bacteria.  Animals often lay in areas they defecate, transferring E. coli from their feces onto their bodies.  Infections can be a result of handling animals, coming in contact with feces, and even inhaling dust from the pens that may contain E. coli.  Always wash hands after handling animals or even being in their enclosures to prevent accidental ingestion of the harmful bacteria.

Person to Person Contact

Person to person transmission of E. coli results in a fecal-oral transfer.  While that might paint a graphic picture, even a small amount of fecal matter can contain enough E. coli to make a person ill.  This can be transferred after using the bathroom or changing the diaper of an infected person.  Always wash your hands after using the restroom, changing a diaper, and other activities that you might come in contact with feces.  Always wash your hands before you engage in an activity that you would put your hands or other objects in your mouth, such as eating.

As the Southwest Utah Public Health Department continues to look for a cause of the outbreak, residents are urged to take precaution to prevent spread of infection.

Sources:

http://www.12news.com/news/health/11-confirmed-cases-of-ecoli-in-arizona-utah-border-outbreak/455889323

http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/tc/e-coli-infection-topic-overview#1