April 10, 2009

Investigation Of Oklahoma E.coli Outbreak Finds No Source

Oklahoma's state health board reported Thursday that an exhaustive investigation had failed to identify how E. coli bacteria was introduced into an Oklahoma restaurant linked to an outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed one.

In its report, the board said analysis suggests there was ongoing foodborne transmission of E. coli at the Country Cottage restaurant in Locust Grove, OK, between Aug. 15 and Aug. 24.  However, since no evidence of the bacteria was identified in the restaurant, investigators were unable determine how it was introduced.

Investigators analyzed food samples from the restaurant, but found no signs of contamination, the report said.  But officials said it was possible the tainted food had already been discarded.

"What is important to remember is that when responding to an infectious disease outbreak, our primary objective is to rapidly identify the source of the infection to contain the outbreak and prevent any further spread," said state epidemiologist Dr. Kristy Bradley in a statement.

"Within 48 hours of being notified of increased cases of persons with bloody diarrhea being admitted to Tulsa area hospitals, we identified the Country Cottage restaurant as the common source of transmission. The restaurant closed voluntarily and the outbreak was contained."

There were a total of 341 cases of people sickened in the outbreak, 70 of which were hospitalized, according to the report.  Several young children required dialysis, and there was one death.

The outbreak was the largest in the nation's history for the rare O111 strain of E.coli, and the Oklahoma Health Department spent 6,481 hours in its investigation.

Authorities permitted the restaurant to reopen after it agreed to a number of conditions, such as disconnecting a private well, consenting to environmental testing upon request, implementing a monitoring system for employee hand-washing and other measures.

Drew Edmondson, Oklahoma's Attorney General, suggested that contaminated well water might have been responsible for the outbreak. He is currently working on a lawsuit against Arkansas-based poultry companies, alleging that chicken waste has polluted the area's water supplies.  But poultry firms say there's no evidence their industry is responsible for the region's water pollution.

An examination by health inspectors of a private water well located on the restaurant property, water filters, and the Locust Grove municipal water supply failed to turn up any evidence of E. coli 0111.

Just 10 outbreaks involving E. coli O111 have been reported in the U.S. prior to the Oklahoma outbreak, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


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