E. Coli Outbreak Under Investigation in OhioJun 12, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
Six cases of E. coli infection this week have Ohio health officials concerned the cases are linked. In one case, a 52-year-old woman who was infected with the bacteria died. Dr. Mysheika LeMaile-Williams, medical director and assistant health commissioner of Columbus Public Health, said three people were hospitalized in the later cases. Although the cases have not all been confirmed by laboratory tests as being caused by E. coli, it is believed the bacteria is the cause for all of the illnesses and the one death.
The city is interviewing those who had E. coli infections to determine what they had eaten and to locate common links, said LeMaile-Williams who added that the “clustering of so many cases in so little time piqued the interest of health officials.”
The 52-year-old woman who died was diagnosed with the same E. coli strain as several Washington state residents whose illnesses were linked to lettuce. Because the strain is a common, no “definitive connection” could be made, according to Kristopher Weiss spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health. Once health officials receive more data, they might re-examine the older case to determine if the illnesses are linked, said Mitzi Kline, spokeswoman for the Franklin County Health Department. Health officials have alerted hospitals to be “vigilant in testing stool for E. coli infection and reporting any infections,” LeMaile-Williams said.
In terms of sources, "nothing is sticking out to us right now," said Kevin Barlow, an epidemiologist with the Fairfield Department of Health. Barlow suggested that in addition to preparing food more carefully, people should avoid swimming in bodies of water such as creeks and streams, particularly after heavy rain, which can contribute to contamination.
Escherichia coli is a relatively common bacteria found in the human digestive tract and is normally harmless; however, some strains, including those linked to food poisoning, are serious and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia. In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness. About 73,000 people are infected and 61 people die from E. coli each year and, last year alone, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.
In the last two years, a variety of food pathogens have killed several people, sickened over 1,300 others, and touched nearly every state in the country as well as Canada. The problem is difficult to police because the food-surveillance system is outdated, under-funded, and overwhelmed by the emergence of mega-farms, -distribution centers, and -transporters. Scientists have expressed concern that infections from antibiotic resistant E. coli bacteria are spreading into the greater population and several countries also now report cases of antibiotic-resistant E. coli. Researchers compare the E. coli threat to the worldwide problem of community-acquired MRSA—methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—an antibiotic-resistant staph developing resistance to the last drug of choice. And, now, emerging data confirms the negative health effects of E. coli can remain for months and years; can have long-term, lasting effects; and can appear months or years after the original illness.