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E. coli Cases Increasing At MSU

Sep 19, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The number of confirmed E. coli cases at Michigan State University (MSU) has increased by six, with an additional 13 students considered probable victims.  The toll is now at 19, health officials confirmed yesterday.  The E. coli strain involved in all confirmed cases is O157:H7, a virulent, contagious, and sometimes fatal strain.

The probable cases involved students who suffered from bloody diarrhea within the last week.  This symptom is a trademark of strain O157:H7 and its most common symptom.  Lab results also revealed that at least two students were ill from the same source, said Dr. Dean G. Sienko, head of the Ingham County Health Department.  The Health Department, MSU, and state and federal officials are investigating this outbreak.  The investigation began Monday after 10 students were treated over the weekend with severe gastrointestinal illness.  "So far, there is no clear pattern that's jumping out at us that would account for all the cases," Sienko said.  Once testing confirms which cases are part of the outbreak, officials hope to continue to isolate possible sources.  Seven campus residents were hospitalized and, according to Sienko, six were released.

MSU officials sent an alert this week asking students to contact them if they had recently experienced gastrointestinal illness, particularly with bloody diarrhea.  In response, a number of students contacted the Ingham County Health Department, Sienko said.  Nine of those students are considered potential E. coli victims, he said.

Strain 0157:H7 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.  "As always, hand washing remains the most effective way of preventing contagious illness," university physician Dr. Beth Alexander warned.

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 is the culprit in the ongoing Oklahoma outbreak.  Also, of particular concern is the virulent, sometimes deadly E. coli O157:H7 strain that is generally found to be the culprit in E. coli-related food-borne illness outbreaks and has been confirmed to be to blame in at least six 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) that are 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.

There is growing concern in the scientific community—not just because of the seeming prevalence of all manner of foodborne illnesses—but 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.

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