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E coli Outbreak in Europe Affects US

Published June 3, 2011 6:25 PM by Glen McDaniel

There are news reports that a virulent strain of E coli first identified in Europe has affected at least four Americans. The strain has killed 18 people and sickened approximately 1700 in Germany, Britain, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. The Americans one thing in common-they all traveled to Germany.

The CDC has issued an outbreak notice and has identified the culprit as Shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC O104:H4). Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, stomach cramps, dehydration, and fever; and in isolated cases it has caused severe anemia and a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

CDC epidemiologists are not sure of an animal source (such as cow manure)  but have recommended  consumers at risk  avoid eating raw vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce.

While there is no need to panic at this point, the quick spread of this outbreak reminds us of our ever shrinking world and one in which microbes do not need a passport to travel internationally. It also reminds us to take common-sense precautions like rigorous handwashing, eating only well-washed or thoroughly cooked vegetables, adequate hydration and seeking medical attention for protracted or unusually severe GI symptoms.

While the epidemiologists will trace the origin and trend lines, it is dedicated laboratorians who will culture specimens, identify organisms and come up with sensitivity patterns to help to stop this bug in its tracks.

3 comments

Marva and JT: thanks for your comments.  Marva, I am not a microbiologist by any means, but it is indeed very likely that the E coli originated in fecal matter. The vector could be farm animals (cow, goats etc) or even slugs which cling to the leaves of grass and vegetables.

Broad leaf vegetables and above-ground vegetables (lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, for eample) are very accessible and are sometimes not washed well or cooked before being eaten.

From the vegetation and soil the bugs also readily make their way into meat, water, milk, apple cider and the like.

The public health admonitions remain the same we all know-wash vegetables in mild bleach, pasteurize milk, cook meats like hamburgers well, boil water , and be especially careful when eating out at restaurants where the recommended precautions might not have been followed.

But like you I wait to see if a particular source and vector are identified.

Glen McDaniel June 5, 2011 3:55 PM

E coli no doubt comes from some sort of ***. In some countries they use human *** as manure. I dont think they would do that in Europe though. Maybe these were in rural areas where they do organic farming (no use of artificial fertilizers, but use natural manure instead). I havent seen or read anything to prove or disprove this theory. My question is why are vegetables more prone than say uncooked beef and fish?

Marva , Generalist June 4, 2011 3:06 PM
Henderson NV

I know it's really too much to ask, I suppose. But for once I would like to hear news reporters -or even CDC- say "the lab." I hate using that term to refer to our profession, but I would take even that term. Everyone talks  about the doctors, the scientists or even the nurses are working on something when it is laboratorians who do the grunt work. Even when they say scientists no one in the public eye thinks of clinical laboratorians. They think of family physicians or the old guy in  a lab coat heating colored liquid in test tubes. Think of the role we played in the anthrax scare yet not a peep from the government or public health officials.

JT Salk MT (AMT), Microbiology Spec June 3, 2011 7:36 PM
Chicago IL

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