New Strains of E. Coli are a Worry

Although grapes, lettuce, and tomatoes look safe and appetizing in your grocer’s shelves, a hidden E. coli toxin could be in them and shoppers would not know.  Kansas State University food expert T.G. Nagaraja has spent the past decade researching E. coli bacteria and reports that a new strain of <"">E. coli could threaten the nation’s food supply.  The toxin comes from healthy plants and animals, but hurts humans.  “Comes through beef, water or vegetables.  The organism produces a toxin that can cause illness in humans,” Nagaraja said.

In the United States, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness.  About 73,000 people are infected and 61 people die from it E. coli each year.  And, last year alone, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.  “Everybody was concerned,” said grocery store owner Terry Olson. “I mean, everybody doesn’t want to feed tainted products to their kids, grandkids, parents, whatever.  And so everybody was afraid of spinach when the E. coli outbreak occurred.”  Nagaraja says people should be concerned and educated by thoroughly cooking their food and cleaning their vegetables.

Meanwhile, Canadian scientists are concerned that infections from an antibiotic resistant E.coli bacteria are spreading beyond hospitals into the greater population and have strongly urged global health officials to begin monitoring their spread to determine which strains are responsible for certain infections and if different antibiotics might be more effective as treatments.  In the study, Dr. Johann Pitout and Dr. Kevin Laupland, both from the University of Calgary in Canada, looked at a strain of E. coli that produces extended-spectrum beta lactamases or ESBLs, enzymes that give the bacteria resistance to antibiotic drugs.

Generally, Escherichia coli is a relatively common bacteria found in the human gut—or digestive tract—and is normally harmless; however, some strains, including those linked to food poisoning, are serious and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia.  The elderly are most at risk, particularly those living in nursing homes.

Several countries now report cases of antibiotic-resistant E.coli and health officials are particularly concerned about the drug-resistant strains reported in Spain, Israel, Italy, Greece, the UK, and Canada.  In these cases, the infection was resistant to four key antibiotics.  In Britain, BBC News reported blood poisoning cases caused by E. coli more than doubled in the ten-year period from 1995 to 2005; a small but growing number were drug-resistant.  In a review of 54 deaths in the county of Shropshire, England all patients were sickened with the resistant strain; the toxin directly contributed to 20% of the deaths.  The bacterium was also responsible for a severe outbreak of urinary tract infections between 2003 and 2004. The UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) said it has been investigating these infections for several years.

Researchers compare the E.coli threat to community-acquired MRSA, which is emerging as a public health problem in many parts of the world, including the US.  MRSA—or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—is an antibiotic-resistant staph developing resistance to the last drug of choice.  In the U.S., community-acquired MRSA is spread outside medical facilities through skin-to-skin contact and accounts for 12% of MRSA cases.

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