By: James Peacock
An outbreak of E. coli poisoning in Utah has continued to worsen. The outbreak, which at the start of the investigation seemed to be limited to a single housing complex, has now expanded into the surrounding area. The Southwest Utah Public Health Department is now working with the Mohave County Department of Health, the Utah Department of Health, the Arizona Department of Health Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an effort to track the illnesses in the outbreak as well as attempt to hunt down a source. As of the latest update, which was provided on July 20, there are now a dozen people sick. Several people have needed to get medical treatment because of the severity of their E. coli infection. This outbreak has already caused the deaths of two children, a three year old and a six year old. The search continues for a source of the outbreak as investigators from the various health departments test samples taken from the environment and different products. Health officials are also conducting interviews with those sickened in the outbreak in order to help find common food items or drinks consumed by ill individuals.
Originally, it was suspected that the drinking water might be contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Health officials took numerous samples and ran tests, yet were unable to find any E. coli in the drinking water. Health officials have issued a few updates since the investigation began on July 3. The number of cases associated with the outbreak has doubled since then. In addition to reporting other cases of E. coli poisoning, health officials also issued a warning later regarding raw milk. They recommended that consumers in Hildale and the surrounding towns not consume raw milk for the time being. Raw milk is milk that has not gone through the pasteurization process developed to eliminate potential bacterial contamination. Because of the lack of preventative measures, raw milk has been at the center of many outbreaks and recalls in recent times. Raw milk is such a common source of pathogen contamination that we have an entire category dedicated to raw milk-related news. E. coli is one of the most common pathogens that contaminate raw milk. Health officials have also warned consumers that recently purchased ground beef should also be avoided because it may be contaminated. Ground beef is also a common source of E. coli contamination, so it makes sense that it would be the second item placed on a warning list when an E. coli outbreak is underway. The more recent updates have further expanded the warnings about potential E. coli contaminations. In the July 20 update, the health department included tips for avoiding E. coli infection, such as thoroughly cooking meats, avoiding swallowing water while swimming, and practicing proper hand washing techniques.
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E. coli bacteria remain one of the most common causes of foodborne illness in the United States. While there are several different types of E. colithat cause illness in humans, the one responsible for this outbreak is E. coli O157H7. This strain of E. coli is one of the several varieties that can produce Shiga toxins. E. coli that produce this toxin are commonly referred to as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). The CDC estimates that there are around 265,000 cases of E. coli poisoning each year in the United States, though this estimate can vary from year to year because in some instance someone with E. coli poisoning may not receive medical care. Cases of E. coli poisoning can occur even if only a small amount of bacteria is consumed. Because E. coli can be found throughout the natural world, it has caused foodborne illness outbreaks through a myriad of different food and drink items. E. coli outbreaks have been caused by beef products, raw milk, yogurt, mayonnaise, cheeses, unpasteurized fruit juices, bagged lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, spinach, various water sources, and more. E. coli infections and outbreaks have been steadily on the rise since 2009, reaching an incidence rate of 2.85 cases per 100,000 persons in 2016, which is the highest it has been since 1996. Again, after exposure to even a small amount of bacteria, it is possible for an infection to develop. Symptoms of the infection will usually occur between 3 and 4 days after exposure, but E. coli infections can begin to cause symptoms anywhere between 1 and 9 days after exposure. Symptoms of an E. coli infection will typically include severe cramping, vomiting, nausea, and watery or bloody diarrhea. There is sometimes a low-grade fever associated with the infection as well. These symptoms, in many cases, will go away on their own after about a week. There is a chance that the infection lasts longer, though. Diarrhea can cause dehydration, a potentially serious complication, so it is important that those suffering from an E. coli infection stay well hydrated.
E. coli is particularly dangerous for two reasons. First, it seems to target children at a much higher rate than other age groups. In fact, according to the CDC, the incidence rate of E. coli poisoning in children under five is more than double the next closest age group, which is children age 5 to 9. Young children under five have an incidence rate of 7.86 cases per 100,000 or almost triple the overall average incidence rate. This has led health officials to declare that children, along with the elderly and those with suppressed or otherwise compromised immune systems are at an increased risk of developing a serious E. coli infection. The other major issue is that STEC are able to cause a very serious side effect known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Hemolytic uremic syndrome occurs in about 3 to 7 percent of E. coli infections. HUS damages red blood cells, which are then sent to the kidneys in order to be filtered out of the bloodstream. Removing these damaged blood cells can damage the kidneys and clog the mechanisms responsible for removing the blood cells. The damage done to the filtration mechanisms, coupled with the increased rate of damage inflicted on the kidneys by Shiga toxins, can lead to serious kidney damage and even kidney failure. HUS can also impact the nervous system and other organs in the body, making it especially dangerous. If a case of E. coli poisoning has progressed to HUS, symptoms such as decreased frequency in urination, fatigue, and loss of color in the eyes and cheeks will be present. HUS is a very serious complication that needs to be treated as quickly as possible. If you or a loved one begins to show the symptoms of E. coli poisoning, contact a medical professional.
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