72 People Ill From E. Coli Outbreak, What Is The Cause?

Food & Drink

Pictured here is one strain of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli. (Photo: Getty Images)

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Oh 103, no. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that at least 72 people in 5 states have already gotten sick from an outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (E. coli) O103. Therefore, for now, be careful when eating anything. Anything? Yes, anything.

That’s because so far there is no clear cause of the outbreak that has affected at least 8 people in Georgia, 36 people in Kentucky, 5 in Ohio, 21 in Tennessee, and 2 in Virginia and has resulted in at least 8 hospitalizations.  A timeline provided by the CDC shows that illnesses started on March 2 , 2019. Those affected have ranged in age from one year old to 74 years young. The median age of people who have gotten ill is 17 years. 

I’ve already written for Forbes about another STEC, Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, that goes by the name O157:H7. This agent, not to be confused with 007, was the cause of the outbreak that was eventually linked to Romaine lettuce last year. A STEC by any name is not good. Besides causing all kinds of poop, including bloody poop, that starts 2 to 8 days after entering your mouth, a STEC can, in some cases, be life threatening.

The biggest concern is hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). As I have described beforethis is HUS and it’s not good: the Shiga toxin triggers destruction of your red blood cells, which can then result in pieces of red blood cells clogging up your kidneys, your kidneys potentially failing, and you potentially dying. The typical symptoms of an “uncomplicated” STEC infection are bad stomach cramps, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. You should worry about HUS if you develop a fever, a pale skin tone, fatigue and irritability, small, unexplained bruises or bleeding from the nose and mouth, and especially decreased urination.

STEC can be all kinds of different foods and beverages. The Foodsafety.gov website includes the following examples: 

  • Contaminated food, especially undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized (raw) milk and juice, soft cheeses made from raw milk, and raw fruits and vegetables (such as sprouts)
  • Contaminated water, including drinking untreated water and swimming in contaminated water
  • Animals and their environment: particularly cows, sheep, and goats. If you don’t wash your hands carefully after touching an animal or its environment, you could get an E. coli infection
  • Feces of infected people

So take precautions when potentially eating or drinking anything, including the feces of other people. I know, I know, you say that feces is not part of your diet. But you would be surprised by how much poop gets around if you don’t wash your hands. So wash your feces-ed hands, frequently and thoroughly, especially when handling food or your mouth.

Here’s how:

Besides washing your hands, which you should do frequently and thoroughly, the CDC recommends that you cook meats thoroughly (steaks and roasts to at least 145˚F and ground beef and pork to at least 160˚F), thoroughly clean anything that touches raw meat, wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, and avoid raw dairy products and unpasteurized juices. Oh, and you should wash your hands, thoroughly and frequently.

For now, the CDC and other authorities are searching for a source of this latest STEC outbreak. Therefore, wait for updates and wash your hands, thoroughly and frequently. The aforementioned food safety recommendations should apply regardless of whether there is a STEC outbreak. In other words, don’t return to wearing raw meat masks, guzzling raw milk, licking cutting boards clean, using unwashed celery as floss, and not washing your hands, frequently and thoroughly after an outbreak has passed.

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