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Wis. children suffer spinach illnesses

Sep 20, 2006 | AP

Anne Grintjes can't even look at produce now without cringing.

"I went through a grocery store the other day and I just flinched when I looked at all the greens," said Grintjes, whose 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter fell ill during a multi-state E. coli outbreak linked to tainted spinach. "It's hard not to, after watching your little boy struggling for his life in a hospital bed."

The boy spent 10 days in Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, battling infection and kidney failure. His mother said the boy ate fresh bagged spinach before he started getting sick Sept. 2.

"He couldn't move, he couldn't walk. He was yellow," she said. "The little boy that he was, you know, was there behind the sick eyes but the disease was taking over his body. He was fighting for his life."

Now he's recovering, while his sister deals with symptoms that started last week, their mother said. Both children tested positive for E. coli.

They are among 146 people in 23 states who have been linked to spinach contamination, according to numbers released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those sickened, 76 were hospitalized and 23 developed a type of kidney failure, the CDC reported.

Wisconsin has been hardest hit with 40 confirmed cases and the only death. Utah reported 16 cases and Ohio 15, according to the CDC.

Marion Graff, 77, a retired bank clerk and widow from Manitowoc, is the nation's only confirmed fatality in the outbreak. She died of kidney failure Sept. 7 caused by an E. coli infection.

Health officials were still trying to determine how Graff, whom relatives described as active and healthy, contracted the illness. Her son, Russell Graff, said she was fond of spinach and fresh fruit.

Natural Selection Foods LLC, a San Juan Bautista, Calif., company whose multiple brands many people reported eating before falling sick, has recalled spinach products distributed throughout the United States. The company also distributed spinach to Canada, Mexico and Taiwan.

Officials with the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services said that while they were concerned the state had more cases than any other, they noted that Wisconsin has an average of around 200 E. coli infections a year from a variety of sources, such as exposure to livestock waste and food contamination.

Paul Biedrzycki, the director of disease control and prevention for the City of Milwaukee Health Department, said reporting of E. coli infections is notoriously unreliable.

"If I see six cases, that could mean there were really 60 to 100 cases," he said. "Where you get concerned is when there's a cluster of cases within a short period of time."

Grintjes, the woman whose children are ill, said the outbreak has been draining. Her daughter's symptoms have been mild so far, she said, but "the wounds are raw" from the ordeal with her son.

"He was scared some days. He didn't say 'I'm scared,' but he cried some days," Grintjes said. "You could see it was more him sensing my fear."

Spinach won't be on the Grintjes family menu any time soon, especially for her son.

"Oh, he won't have it again, not for a long time," she said.

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