More E. coli Outbreaks Reported in Michigan

Michigan’s Ingham County Health Department confirms that since last week, seven Michigan State University (MSU) students have tested positive for the <"">E. coli bacteria, with three cases resulting in identical matches.

Michigan is expanding its investigation into at least four other counties and over a dozen other cases; state health officials are working to determine if the new cases are linked to MSU’s outbreak.  Dr. Dean Sienko, Ingham County Health Department said, “We put out an alert that went statewide with our colleagues at the state health department.”  It now seems as if investigations include about one dozen cases in Lenawee County; one case each has been confirmed in Saint Clair, Wayne, and Washtenaw counties, which are identical matches to three MSU cases; however, health officials report that these cases have no connection to the university.

Regarding the diversity in locations hit by the outbreaks, James McCurtis, Michigan Department Of Community Health said, “To have all these people who possibly have E. coli and possibly from the same strain, that is unusual.”  Investigators are trying to figure out what all those who have fallen ill have in common.  “We want to find out what have they eaten, where did they eat, you know all of those questions, that relate, that could bring some type of answer to this,” McCurtis said.  “So far, there is no clear pattern that’s jumping out at us that would account for all the cases,” Sienko said.

The E. coli strain involved in all confirmed cases is O157:H7, a virulent, contagious, and sometimes fatal strain.  Strain O157:H7 is typically spread when a person fails to properly wash his or her hands and then handles food.  Once the food is eaten, the bacteria take hold.  “As always, hand washing remains the most effective way of preventing contagious illness,” university physician Dr. Beth Alexander warned.

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 very rare and toxin-producing strain E. coli O111 that recently made headlines in Oklahoma.  Of particular concern is the virulent O157:H7 strain that is generally found to be the culprit in E. coli-related food-borne illness outbreaks and has been confirmed to be to blame in a variety of cases in this outbreak.  Both strains are among those E. coli that may cause serious disease and death and are in a group called Verocytotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC) linked to food poisoning.  VTECs are very serious and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, deadly septicemia, and death.

In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness, accounting for about 73,000 infections and 61 deaths; last year, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.  And, now, there is growing concern in the scientific community—not just because of the seeming prevalence of all manner of food borne illnesses—because instances of drug resistant E. coli are being reported world-wide and are similar in path to a mutated staph called MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus that, when not treated early, is resistant to all but the one antibiotic of last resort.

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