June 21, 2008

Ohio Officials Search for Source of E. Coli Strain

The Ohio Department of Health and officials in five Ohio counties are investigating 17 illnesses from E. coli bacteria.

So far the cases are confined to counties in Central and Northwest Ohio.

Thirteen of the 17 cases have been linked by genetic fingerprinting and also match the genetic fingerprint of several cases in Michigan, according to the state health department.

The strain is E. coli O157:H7, the same type that caused a national outbreak from spinach in 2006.

So far, no source for these illnesses has been determined, said Kristopher Weiss, spokesman for the state health department. Officials are in the process of testing food samples.

However, Michigan health officials earlier this week said they believed ground beef was the common link in cases in that state.

"We're not there yet," Weiss said. "Here in Ohio we can't make that leap. We've got nothing ruled in, nothing ruled out. . . . What we've seen so far is some commonalties in genetic fingerprint testing. Our local partners are continuing to interview patients to see if we can find any common cause and that work is ongoing."

E. coli is often associated with animal products, such as hamburger, but increasingly has been linked to contaminated produce. According to information from Ohio State University's College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, between 1991 and 2002, more than 21 percent of all E. coli O157 outbreaks in the U.S. were from produce.

Weiss said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta linked the Ohio cases to those in Michigan, and that trace-back work to determine the cause will be performed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "They are just beginning to be involved," he said.

Ohio typically sees about 140 cases of E. coli each year. In this outbreak, there is one confirmed case in Delaware County, three confirmed and one suspected in Fairfield County, seven confirmed and three probable in Franklin County, one confirmed in Lucas County and one confirmed in Seneca County.

Those infected with E. coli O157:H7 typically have diarrhea, which can be bloody and severe, and abdominal cramps two to eight days after infection.

According to the CDC, E. coli bacteria live naturally inside animals including cattle, goats, sheep and deer, and are passed on to humans when they eat food contaminated with animal feces or foods such as produce that have somehow been cross-contaminated.

The CDC lists common sources of E. coli infections as ground beef, unpasteurized or raw milk, unpasteurized apple cider, soft cheeses made from raw milk, water that has not been disinfected, direct contact with cattle or with the feces of infected people. Cases have been traced to people swallowing lake water while swimming, touching things in petting zoos and other animal exhibits, and eating food prepared by people who did not wash their hands after using the toilet.

Avoid infection

The state health department has released these tips to help prevent contamination from E. coli bacteria:

--Wash hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom or changing diapers, before and after eating or preparing food, and after touching animals. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water aren't available.

--Cook ground beef to 160 degrees, chicken to 165 degrees. Test the meat by putting a food thermometer in the thickest part of the meat. Wash the thermometer after each use. Don't eat ground beef that is pink in the middle. If a restaurant serves you an undercooked hamburger, send it back for more cooking. Ask for a new bun and a clean plate, too.

--In the kitchen, keep raw meat away from other foods. Wash hands, cutting boards, counters, dishes and silverware with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat, spinach, greens or sprouts.

--Never put cooked meat on the same plate it was on before cooking.

--Drink only pasteurized milk, juice or cider. Frozen juice or juice sold in boxes and glass jars at room temperature has been pasteurized, although it may not say so on the label.

--Drink water from safe sources such as municipal water that has been treated with chlorine, wells that have been tested or bottled water. Do not swallow lake or pool water while swimming.

--Wash all fruits and vegetables prior to eating them.

Lisa A. Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or [email protected]


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