With the world reeling in alarm from the recent E. coli outbreak in northern Germany and Europe, one should ask what does this mean for me and my family. With 2,900 cases reported across Europe and a nearly two dozen deaths, one thing is certain: A similar outbreak could happen in the U.S. In fact, it has happened before. In 1993, Americans were shocked to learn of its spread through ground beef, the main ingredient of one of our precious delicacies — the hamburger.
Although E. coli illnesses have declined significantly since 1993, the disease started to increase in 2004 and 2006. The number of suspected U.S. cases involving the deadly E. coli bacteria that sickened thousands in Europe is currently at six. The CDC said three suspected cases of a type of kidney failure associated with E. coli infections — hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) — had been identified in Massachusetts, Michigan and Wisconsin. So far since the start of June, there have been several cases reported in the United States that are not not related to the outbreak in Europe. In Amarillo, Texas; and Tulsa, Okla., health officials are investigating small clusters of E. coli O157:H7 infection involving children. In Virginia, a child died this week of an E. coli infection, and another person “in close contact” with the child has been infected as well. In Tennessee, one child has died, two more are in the hospital, and seven others have suffered E. coli infections this month.
Symptoms of E. coli infections include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. E. coli is commonly found in the digestive tracts of humans and animals, where they make up part of the normal bacteria of the intestine. The most commonly identified STEC in the United States is E. coli 0157:H7. E. coli can be spread through consumption of undercooked meat, particularly beef, drinking contaminated raw milk, swimming in, or drinking contaminated water, or by consuming foods or mouthing objects that have been contaminated with feces of an infected person or animal. Person-to-person transmission can occur if infected people do not wash their hands after using the toilet or after changing diapers. The following precautions can be taken to prevent E. coli: 1] Always refrigerate meat products. Do not leave them at room temperature. 2] Cook ground meat completely to an internal temperature of 160˚ F. 3] Clean thoroughly with bleach any surface meat has touched and 4] Avoid drinking unpasteurized products, such as milk and juices.
This outbreak comes at a strange time politically, since programs for food safety are being targeted for cuts by House Republicans, who have introduced a 2012 appropriations bill this week that would cut funding to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food-assistance program by $832 million, or 12 percent, and funding for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by $285 million, or 11.5 percent.
–torrance stephens, ph.d.