A week ago, we reported on a developing E. coli outbreak in Washtenaw County, Michigan.  Notably, the outbreak is not attributable to E. coli O157:H7–the most notorious of all E. coli strains–but it does appear to be a shiga-toxin producing strain of E. coli.  Apparently, the outbreak is no longer confined to Washtenaw County, or even the state of Michigan, as Ohio has now reported illnesses in Columbus-area residents, including several students of Ohio State University. 

Certain press accounts have indicated that a single Washtenaw county restaurant is the source of the Washtenaw county portion of this outbreak, but the Ohio and OSU illnesses apparently match the Michigan illnesses, which means that we’re probably dealing with an outbreak linked to a regionally distributed food product.  Could it be lettuce, as we saw in the September 2008 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to Aunt Mid’s and Santa Barbara Farms lettuce?  Ground beef?  Answers will likely, hopefully, come soon, as investigating health authorities compare the food histories of all infected people. 

The Columbus Post Dispatch reported as follows regarding the five Ohio and OSU E. coli illnesses:

Columbus Public Health has identified five cases of E. coli infection, some of them in Ohio State University students, and is looking into five others that might be connected to an outbreak in Washtenaw County, Michigan.

The five Columbus residents were sickened by the bacteria Escherichia coli starting in mid-April, said Dr. Mysheika LeMaile-Williams, the city’s medical director.

Some were hospitalized, but none so far have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potential complication that destroys red blood cells and can cause kidney failure and death.

The E. coli tests that have come back from the state indicate that its not E. coli 0157:H7, which is most commonly implicated in outbreaks, LeMaile-Williams said.

All types sicken people in the same way, she said. The primary symptoms are bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps.

So far, the state lab has determined that two of the cases have genetic fingerprints that match an outbreak in Michigan, LeMaile-Williams said.

In Michigan, several cases have been linked to a restaurant, said Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman Jen House. She did not know the name of the restaurant. Calls to Michigan health officials were not immediately returned. Washtenaw County is home to Ann Arbor.

So far, there’s no known source for the infections, nor any known risk for others in Columbus, LeMaile-Williams said.

OSU spokeswoman Liz Cook said the university is working closely with Columbus Public Health but would not provide any details about the students.