New E. coli Outbreak Emerging in Georgia

With two confirmed cases and approximately one dozen tests pending, public health disease investigators in Georgia are looking into an outbreak of Escherichia coli (E. coli).  “This appears to be a cluster of <"">E. coli 0157, which is one of the most commonly identified disease-causing groups of this bacteria in the United States.  Public Health became involved after healthcare providers noticed a number of patients were experiencing similar symptoms,” Southwest Georgia Public Health District Deputy Director Brenda Greene said.

“The investigation is ongoing and we are doing everything we can to find out as quickly as possible what is behind the cluster of illnesses.  In the meantime, we are urging people to practice good hand-washing and food preparation techniques to avoid this and other types of food-borne illnesses,” she said.  Escherichia coli strain 0157:H7 is particularly virulent and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia.  In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness and about 73,000 people are infected and 61 people die from E. coli annually; last year, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to outbreaks.  

Symptoms of E. coli 0157:H7 illness include possibly severe stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration; diarrhea is often bloody and, in some instances, fever occurs.  Children, the elderly and people with poor immune systems are most vulnerable.  “Most people who become sick with E. coli become better within five to seven days without treatment.  While some infections are very mild, others can be severe or even life-threatening,” Greene said.

For now, the investigation is focusing on patients who have been hospitalized or treated as outpatients.  It is expected that the investigation will be expanded to include those who visited physicians or similar healthcare providers and did not go hospitals, according to Greene.  “As our disease investigators learn more, we will continue to update the community,” said Greene. “We are looking for what the patients may have in common. Investigations such as these may take days or even weeks.”  Investigators are reviewing if and what foods or places patients have in common, times they ate in common, and what water activities were in common since some disease-causing bacteria are found in water.  “Since we know illness occurs when E. coli bacteria are swallowed, we are reminding the public to take precautions when handling food,” Greene said.  “At this time, however, we have not linked a type of food or any specific food item to the symptoms we are investigating.”

Food borne illnesses are on the rise, in part, due to the challenges in policing an outdated and under-funded food-surveillance system overwhelmed by the emergence of mega-farms, -distribution centers, and -transporters.  Worse, scientists have expressed concern that infections from antibiotic resistant E. coli are spreading; several countries now report such cases.  Worse, emerging data confirms the negative health effects of E. coli can remain for months and years; can have long-term, lasting effects; and can appear months or years after the original illness.

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