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MSU E. coli Linked to Eight Cases State-Wide; Source Unknown

Sep 24, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

The E. coli strain that has thus sickened students at Michigan State University has now been linked to at least eight other cases in that state, including one at the University of Michigan and five at the Lenawee County Jail, state health officials said.  Although investigators believe that all of the patients fell ill from the same food source, the source has not yet been identified.  "The problem is that we still don't know what the source is," said James McCurtis, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Twenty-seven students at MSU have fallen ill with bloody diarrhea; seven were hospitalized.  Stool samples in eight patients confirmed E. coli O157:H7 contamination.  Bloody diarrhea is a common symptom of the O157:H7 strain.

Health investigators initially focused on MSU's east complex dorms, which is where most of the ill students live, according to Dr. Dean G. Sienko, director of the Ingham County Health Department.  Now that the cases are linked to others around the state, it is possible that the contaminated food was widely distributed.

Lab test results—DNA fingerprinting—for three students matched those of patients who also fell ill in Washtenaw, St. Clair, Wayne, and Lenawee counties since September 8, McCurtis said.  In Washtenaw County, a University of Michigan student fell ill.  In Lenawee County, the five who fell ill were inmates in the jail there, said McCurtis.  Details were unavailable on the St. Clair and Wayne county cases.  Meanwhile, investigators continue to conduct detailed interviews to determine what the MSU students ate.  Sienko explained that the investigative process is complex and involves comparing their food histories to those of a sample population of students who did not become sick.

E. coli O157:H7 is a virulent, contagious, and sometimes fatal strain that is typically spread when a person fails to properly wash his/her hands and then handles food.  Once the food is ingested, the bacteria run amok.  E. coli are found in animal intestines and feces and while some strains are necessary for digestion, some are harmful, even deadly.  Of particular concern is the virulent 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 this outbreak. O157:H7 is among those E. coli in a group called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC), which are linked to food poisoning, are very serious, and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, deadly septicemia, and death.

E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness in the U.S. and accounts 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.


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