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E. coli Bacteria

E. coli Bacteria is in the news again, only this time, the words “virulent," “lethal," “vicious," “deadly," “nasty," “dangerous," and “new strain" have been used to describe this recent E. coli outbreak.

In less than a week, this new wave of E.coli infections struck 1,500 people. It mystified public health officials in its European epicenter, Hamburg, Germany. Earlier reports sourced Spain as the origin and that news decimated Spain’s agriculture, igniting a worldwide panic. At least 16 people died and what particularly alarmed officials is the surprisingly high proportion of those infected also exhibited kidney complications.

This E. coli strain attacks the kidneys in a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome which often leads to comas, seizures and strokes.

As of this writing, four cases of E.coli bacteria have surfaced in the United States from Americans returning from Germany. Officials at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta indicate that this level of acute kidney failure is unprecedented, stating that, “This makes it an extraordinary large and severe event." Other cases have already been reported in every corner of Germany. Consumers have stopped buying vegetables and fruits across the board in spite of the fact that only cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes have been mentioned as sources of infection. This little known strain, identified as E. coli 0104:H4 continues to puzzle scientists as to its extreme virulence.

Mention E. coli bacteria in a roomful of people, and you will see fear and concern on many faces. Public awareness of this lowly bacterium has risen dramatically in the last few years. This interest springs from E. coli outbreaks that have happened too frequently around the globe. In 2006, an E. coli outbreak originated when baby spinach sickened 204 people in 26 states and caused three deaths. An episode in Scotland killed seven people and infected several hundred others. What makes E. coli so alarming is its invisibility. It has no offending taste or smell. The contaminated food can even look wholesome, such as that bagged baby spinach.Theodor-Escherich-E.-Coli

E. coli (Escherichia coli) are bacteria named after a German pediatrician and bacteriologist, Theodor Escherich (pictured on right), who discovered this bacterium in 1885. Coli are a reference to bacteria which grows in the colon. There are many different types of E. coli. Harmless E. coli are present in the intestines of people and animals. However, three strains of the bacteria create potentially lethal toxins, 0157:H7, 0121, and 0104:H21. The bacteria are often used in experiments because they survive well outside the body, and they grow easily in a laboratory. In addition, their genetics are simple and easily manipulated.

E. coli infections usually originate from the following sources:

  • Drinking water which is contaminated
  • Drinking unpasteurized milk, apple juice, or apple cider
  • Eating ground beef that’s undercooked
  • Working around cattle
  • Person to person contact often in day care centers or nursing homes
  • Swimming in contaminated water

Ground beef should always be cooked thoroughly and never contain any pink color inside where the bacteria can survive. People who are infected with E. coli are highly contagious and need to take precautions not to infect others.

E. coli Symptoms

E.coli symptoms often start about seven days after the bacteria has entered your system. Suddenly, you may come down with severe abdominal cramps, followed by watery diarrhea. Your body will become dehydrated from the loss of fluids. After a day, the watery diarrhea becomes bloody from sores in the intestine. This may last anywhere from two to five days. There may be ten bowel movements a day, and people say they consist blood. Along with these symptoms, you may run a slight fever, feel nauseous, and perhaps vomit. It is important to consult your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms because life-threatening complications can develop. Diagnosis can be made from a stool culture.

E. coli Treatment

Your body needs to rid itself of the invading bacteria naturally, so don’t take medicines to stop the diarrhea, unless your doctor has prescribed them. Drink a lot of water to keep hydrated and help flush the bacteria from your system. Antibiotics usually don’t work against E. coli infections because some strains are resistant to them. Be alert to complications which can develop from an infection.

What are the complications of the E. coli infection?

Hemolytic uremic syndrome is the most common complication and is often found in children with E. coli. It can lead to acute renal failure. It usually begins about five to ten days after the start of the diarrhea. Patients develop a low red blood cell and platelet count, and kidney damage. The patient needs immediate medical care and hospitalization.

Prevention Measures against E. coli

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing a diaper
  • Wash your hands after handling animals, or any material which may contain animal feces.
  • Thoroughly cook ground beef, pork, sausage, and other meats to 155° F.
  • Always keep raw meat separate from other foods to prevent cross contamination
  • Do not drink unpasteurized milk
  • Thoroughly was fresh fruits and vegetables before eating
  • Wash hands, cutting boards, counters, and utensils after contact with raw meat
  • Don’t taste ground beef as you are cooking
  • Refrigerate leftovers immediately or throw them away

Written by Joy Seeman,

© H.I.C. Digestive Health


E. Coli. (2009, July 28). Retrieved January 27, 2010, from Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/e-coli/DS01007

E. Coli Infections. (2010, January 21). Retrieved January 27, 2010, from Medline Plus. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ecoliinfections.html

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