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California's Forest Ranch E. coli Count Reaches 21

Sep 23, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Another E. coli outbreak is being investigated, this time in California.  The Butte County Public Health Department confirmed yesterday that it identified three additional cases of E. coli O157:H7, bringing the total to 21 in that recent outbreak.  There have been four hospitalizations, including one of a young child; some people became very sick with severe diarrhea.

It seems that the outbreak originated from a fundraiser held in Forest Ranch on September 6 that was to benefit the volunteer fire department there.  Dr. Mark Lundberg, Butte County's health officer, said four people who attended  the event became seriously ill following the event that hosted 300-400 people.  Health officials believe that tri-tip served at the fundraiser was contaminated with E. coli bacteria and are now working to determine how the meat became contaminated.  Officials are also testing other foods served with the tri-tip to determine if those other foods were also contaminated along with the meat, said Lundberg.  Lundberg also said he's worried that other people, who fell ill with mild cases of diarrhea-type illnesses, could spread the illness to others, causing what he called a "secondary outbreak" of the problem and that these people could spread E. coli to vulnerable communities, such as the elderly or the very young.

E. coli strain O157:H7 is an extremely virulent, contagious, and sometimes fatal strain and is typically spread when a person fails to properly wash his or her hands and then handles food.  Once the food is eaten, the bacteria take hold.  E. coli are a group of bacteria found in animal intestines and feces.  Some strains are necessary for digestion; some are harmful, even deadly, such as the very rare and toxin-producing strain E. coli O111 that recently made headlines in Oklahoma.  Generally, strain O157:H7 is found to be the culprit in E. coli-related food-borne illness outbreaks and has been confirmed to be to blame in the confirmed cases in this outbreak.  Both strains are among those E. coli that may cause serious disease and death and are in a group called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC) linked to food poisoning.  VTECs are very serious and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, deadly septicemia, and death.

In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness, accounting for about 73,000 infections and 61 deaths; last year, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.  And, now, there is growing concern in the scientific community—not just because of the seeming prevalence of all manner of food borne illnesses—because instances of drug resistant E. coli are being reported world-wide and are similar in path to a mutated staph called MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus that, when not treated early, is resistant to all but the one antibiotic of last resort.

E. coli O157:H7 is to blame in the ongoing and widening outbreak occurring in Michigan and strain O111 was to blame in the outbreak in Oklahoma.  That outbreak was the largest such E. coli O111 in American history.

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