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Officials Report That More MSU E. Coli Cases Expected

Sep 17, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP We recently reported that the Ingham County Health Department is investigating an emerging E. coli bacteria outbreak at the Michigan State University (MSU) after 10 students were treated last weekend with severe gastrointestinal illness.  The infection has been confirmed as Escherichia coli strain O157:H7.  Although officials are saying the outbreak is mostly over, they believe that more people were likely infected than originally reported.

Ten students fell ill from September 8th through the 11th, and all but one sought treatment at Sparrow Hospital, officials reported.  Seven students remained hospitalized yesterday; more are expected to come forward and report that they had symptoms, officials said.  Yesterday, MSU health officials were distributing a campus-wide notice asking people to report recent gastrointestinal illnesses, particularly any bloody diarrhea, which is a trademark of this particular E. coli strain.  E. coli O157:H7 "is a particularly dangerous strain," said Dr. Dean Sienko, medical director of the Ingham County Health Department.  Sienko's office is trying to determine what caused the outbreak among the MSU students.  "There's nothing the students had in common that we know of," he said. "We're still in the midst of our investigation."  MSU has 45 food service facilities and Sienko said, "That's where we're looking most intensely," adding that, "All our evidence points to an event that took place last week," Sienko said, "or prior to that."

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 stated in the campus e-mail.

Investigators continue to try to determine where and when the students ate based on swipes of their college ID cards in campus cafeterias and eateries.  The information on these activities is expected to help locate if bacteria in the food supply there may still be a threat.  "We are trying to get a grasp on how big this (outbreak) is," said Dr. Dean G. Sienko, Ingham County Health Department officer.  This is the first such food-borne outbreak Sienko remembers that involves a health department investigation at MSU in the past two decades, he said.  

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 blame 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.

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