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E. Coli Outbreaks in Ohio, Michigan May be Linked

Jun 20, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Ohio Department of Health is investigating whether its growing cases of E. coli—now numbered at 16—are from a common source and are linked to nearly 30 cases that have been reported in Michigan.  As of yesterday, 10 cases were linked by genetic fingerprinting and cases have been reported from Lucas, Seneca, Franklin, Delaware, and Fairfield counties in Ohio.

According to Dr. David Grossman, Lucas County health commissioner, "There is some commonality" among the 16 cases.  No information was released about how people were affected, how they contracted the E. coli, or the severity of their illnesses.  Most cases originated from within 30 miles of Columbus.  Four cases were confirmed and five are pending in Franklin County.  There was one case in Delaware County, about 27 miles north of Columbus, and there were three confirmed cases and one pending in Fairfield County, about 30 miles southeast of Columbus.

And, now, the Ohio health department is working with the Michigan Department of Community Health, which is investigating 29 cases of E. coli that may be related to tainted ground beef; officials there said that some of those cases are likely linked to the Ohio cases.  In addition to the Michigan Department of Community Health, the team of health departments working on the two-state case includes the city of Columbus and Delaware, Fairfield, and Franklin counties.

The case was officially deemed an outbreak in Ohio earlier this week when four cases from Franklin County were found to have genetic links, proving they originated from the same source.  To date, no cases have been linked to the strain found in a 52-year-old Gahanna woman who died on May 27.

According to Dr. Mysheika LeMaile-Williams, medical director and assistant health commissioner at Columbus Public Health, determining the source of the outbreak is no easy task and Debbie Coleman, assistant city health commissioner, said it takes approximately three weeks between the illness and genetic fingerprinting results.

Escherichia coli is a relatively common bacteria found in the human digestive tract and, while normally harmless, some strains—such as those linked to food poisoning—are serious and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia.  Because many infected with the bacteria experience less severe symptoms, many cases are never reported.  In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness and about 73,000 people are infected and 61 people die from E. coli annually; last year, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.

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 now spreading and several countries are reporting cases.  Worse, 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.

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