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Seattle Health Officials Investigating 14 Unconfirmed E. coli Cases

Oct 21, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Officials in Seattle, WA think they might have an E. coli outbreak on their hands. Snohomish Health District spokeswoman, Suzanne Pate, said that district's nurses noted two E. coli cases last week and this Friday asked Snohomish County physicians to conduct further testing if any more patients came in seeking treatment with bloody diarrhea for at least two days.  Bloody diarrhea is often associated with E. coli.

By noon Monday, medical professionals in the county reported a total 14 cases, none of which have yet been confirmed as being E. coli by additional testing, which can take several days.  Snohomish County has between 16 and 20 reported cases of E. coli in any given year, "so this is a significant number," Pate said of the 14 known cases.  The source of the contamination isn't known, she said.  Currently, health district officials in Seattle are reviewing extensive questionnaires that the ill completed.  Officials are reviewing the documentation for commonalities, such as one place they all might have visited.

Meanwhile, there have been a number of recent E. coli contamination outbreaks, including one involving California lettuce that affected numerous people in a variety of states and beef in Vermont, as well as another in which, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said cattle fed an ethanol byproduct called distiller's grain, which is a cheap and common feed, have a higher concentration of acid in their digestive tracts and are more likely to have E. coli than corn-fed cattle.  The USDA did not advise farmers to stop feeding distiller's grain to cattle.

Pate said E. coli is a fecal-oral form of contamination.  It could be picked up if someone "patted a sheep and ate cotton candy," for example, or changed a diaper, then prepared food without washing hands first, she said.  "Public Health in Snohomish County is working to solve this disease puzzle," said director Dr. Gary Goldbaum.  "No single source is jumping out at us from the preliminary investigation.  However, we learn more with each interview and each lab test."

In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness, accounting for about 73,000 infections and 61 deaths annually; last year, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.  Food borne contamination problems are complicated by a food path that 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.

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 O157:H7 strain that is generally found to be the culprit in E. coli-related food-borne illness outbreaks and is to blame in this outbreak.  O157:H7 is among those E. coli that may cause serious disease—such as fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia—and are in a group called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC) that are linked to food poisoning.  VTECs can result in death.  Left untreated, E. coli toxicity can result in kidney damage and failure.


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