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Georgia E Coli Source Eludes Authorities, Bacteria Strain Being Compared to Ohio-Michigan Outbreak

Jul 3, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Health workers looking into the E. coli outbreak in Georgia’s Colquitt County are asking for assistance in locating its source.  People continue to fall ill, with four confirmed cases and over a dozen other cases treated for E. coli symptoms.  The source of this outbreak has still not been found and health officials say they are comparing the local strain of E. coli against the strain in the recent Ohio and Michigan outbreaks.

Health officials have called for reinforcements and are accepting offers for additional help from other counties and the state epidemiologists office to track down the source.  Officials are waiting for test results in nine cases and investigators will continue to question those who have tested positive and negative for the illness hoping to find a common link.  "We continue to be concerned that people continue to get sick," said Southwest Georgia Public Health District Deputy Director Brenda Greene.  "So our concern is what is what is the exposure, why are they getting sick, so we are continuing with our intense investigation, trying to determine that source.

"This appears to be a cluster of E. coli 0157, which is one of the most commonly identified disease-causing groups of this bacteria in the United States.  Public Health became involved after healthcare providers noticed a number of patients were experiencing similar symptoms," Greene said.  "The investigation is ongoing and we are doing everything we can to find out as quickly as possible what is behind the cluster of illnesses.  In the meantime, we are urging people to practice good hand-washing and food preparation techniques to avoid this and other types of food-borne illnesses," she added.

Escherichia coli strain 0157:H7 is particularly virulent and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia.  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 outbreaks. 

Symptoms of E. coli 0157:H7 illness include possibly severe stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration; diarrhea is often bloody and, in some instances, fever occurs.  Children, the elderly and people with poor immune systems are most vulnerable.  "Most people who become sick with E. coli become better within five to seven days without treatment.  While some infections are very mild, others can be severe or even life-threatening," Greene said.

Food borne illnesses are on the rise, in part, due to the challenges in policing an outdated and under-funded food-surveillance system overwhelmed by the emergence of mega-farms, -distribution centers, and -transporters.  Worse, scientists have expressed concern that infections from antibiotic resistant E. coli are spreading; several countries now report such 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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