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No Salad In Hamburg: The latest E. coli outbreak

by Guy McCardle

June 4, 2011

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Donate I suppose this is not the typical skeptical type blog entry in the sense that there really is not any idea to challenge or attempt to debunk here. Pathogenic E. coli is, and has been, all too common in the U.S. in recent years. The current outbreak seems to be centered in Germany with contaminated lettuce implicated as the source. Hence, the title of this post.

I’ll try not to turn this into a journal article, but are there are some basic facts about E. coli and food poisoning that all consumers should know. First of all, E. coli is part of all of our normal intestinal flora. In that sense we all already 'have' E. coli (and tons of other types of bacteria). A normally functioning, healthy immune system keeps the bacteria in its place and prevents it from causing disease.

The strain of E. coli causing the sickness and death in Germany (18 dead and 1500 sickened at last count) is being referred to in the press as a “killer hybrid”. The scientific designation of this strain is Escherichia coli O104:H4. It is a shiga toxin producing bacteria that can cause illness ranging from mild intestinal disease to severe kidney complications. In addition to the shiga toxin producing genes, researchers found genes from another type of bacteria called entero-aggregative E. coli. These are known to adhere to the intestinal wall and cause persistent watery diarrhea. For disease tracking purposes it is important to note that the shiga toxin producing type lurks mainly in cattle guts, whereas entero-aggregative E.coli are known only in humans.

There is no real polite way to say this, so here goes: E. coli is spread through the fecal/oral route. That is, you have to ingest it. And the "it" you ingest has to come originally from feces. The "it" gets all over produce which if we do not thoroughly wash, we consume. It is possible for this nasty bug to be spread from person to person if one were to come into contact with the feces of an infected person. Let me stop here and reiterate what Mom always told you while you were growing up; wash your hands (thoroughly with soap and water) and keep your fingers out of your mouth.

This latest E. coli outbreak is of particular concern because it is so virulent. Normally, about 5-10% of shiga toxin producing E. coli infections lead to a condition called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, or HUS, in which toxin-induced blood clots in capillaries damage major organs, especially the kidneys. This can prove fatal. With the current strain of bacteria found in Germany, the rate of HUS is 25%.

All this science stuff is nice to know, you might say, "but how do I keep from dying from kidney failure and bloody diarrhea caused by eating a poop contaminated salad?" Here is what the professionals recommend: Cook meats and poultry thoroughly. Ground beef should reach at least 160 degrees F (until the meat is no longer pink and juices run clear). Do not consume raw milk or unpasteurized dairy products and fruit juices. Thoroughly wash and rinse all fruits and vegetables. Most importantly, wash your hands with soap and water (alcohol hand-rub may be used if your hands are not grossly contaminated). Wash them for as long as it takes to sing the happy birthday song twice. It may just save your life and let you live to be skeptical another day.

by Guy McCardle

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