Oklahoma Center of the Largest E. coli O111 Outbreak in US HistorySep 3, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
The deadly E. coli outbreak in Oklahoma is now the largest such outbreak in US history. It also turns out E. coli was not linked to bacteria found in the water used at the Country Cottage restaurant, as was suspected yesterday, the state Health Department said. Officials are now saying that food at the restaurant is believed to be the culprit in this outbreak and there is “no reason think food outside the restaurant would be contaminated.” Meanwhile, the number of victims continues to increase. The state interviewed over 600 people and at least 206 have been sickened: 149 adults, 53 children, and four other people whose ages have not been confirmed. One man died. Patient are between two months and 88 years of age, officials said.
Late last week, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality released test results indicating that potentially harmful bacteria were found in well water at Country Cottage. Although Country Cottage typically operated on city water, it temporarily switched to its private well on August 10 after a city water line broke. Tests on bacteria found in well water samples confirmed that the water could be unhealthy and could contain E. coli; however, the state Health Department confirmed no E. coli strains were present there.
E. coli are a group of bacteria found in animal intestines and feces. Some strains are necessary for digestion; some are harmful, even deadly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified a very rare and toxin-producing strain of E. coli—E. coli O111—in stool samples taken from victims of this outbreak. According to the state Health Department, E. coli O111 has only been “implicated in three other disease outbreaks in the United States.” Among those E. coli that may cause serious disease and death are a group called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC); E. coli O111 is in this group of virulent, potentially deadly E. coli strains.
Regarding Country Cottage, Health Department spokeswoman Leslea Bennett-Webb said, "We're looking at the counters, the food preparation areas, the buffet area, and we've taken swabs of those areas to see if there's any E. coli O111 contamination." State epidemiologist Dr. Kristy Bradley also said, "The complexity of this outbreak and the necessity to be extremely thorough in our investigation means we still have more questions than answers." According to Oklahoma State Department of Health records, less than 50 cases of E. coli have occurred in Oklahoma annually since 2005. In 2008, only 18 cases were reported as of July 31.
According to the Associated Press (AP), Sheila Beaver and her family—including her 19-month old daughter, Braylee—ate at Country Cottage August 19. Braylee developed a fever and severe diarrhea, was placed on 24-hour dialysis for three days, and remains hospitalized. Beaver criticized state health officials for not shutting down the restaurant after the first illnesses were reported to the health department on August 22.
The AP also reported that during an August 23 surprise inspection nine health code violations were identified. Despite this, Country Cottage remained open on August 24, the day the one related death occurred. "Once there were so many people who were sick that had eaten at Country Cottage, I think they should have at least shut it down," Beaver said. "When it's people's lives at stake, they should shut things down. This is a serious disease."