Ten illnesses in Washtenaw County, Michigan, appear to be E. coli infections, although the county is awaiting final test results. The Washtenaw Public Health Department is urging anyone with symptoms of E. coli infection to contact the health department while it investigates the possible source.

“It’s especially important for physicians, pediatricians, urgent care providers and first responders to be aware that there is a potential outbreak,” said food safety attorney William Marler.  “They can make sure that any patient with symptoms pointing to E. coli infection is promptly tested.”

Escherichia coli (E. coli) are members of a large group of bacterial germs that inhabit the intestinal tract of humans and other warm-blooded animals. Most strains—or serotypes—of E. coli do not cause disease in humans, but the toxic serotypes can cause serious illness and even death.  

E. coli is often contracted by consuming food or beverage that has been contaminated by animal (especially cattle) manure. The majority of food borne E. coli outbreaks has been traced to contaminated ground beef; however produce that has been contaminated in fields or during processing has been increasingly identified as the source of outbreaks, as have unpasteurized milk and cheese, unpasteurized cider and apple juice, sprouts, orange juice, and even water. There have also been outbreaks associated with petting zoos and agricultural fairs.

The first symptom of E. coli infection is the onset of abdominal pain and severe cramps, followed by diarrhea, which is often bloody.  This is hemorrhagic colitis, and it typically occurs within 2 to 5 days of ingestion of E. coli; however the incubation period—the time between the ingestion of E. coli bacteria and the onset of illness—may be as broad as 1 to 10 days. 

“Unfortunately, E. coli can be easily transmitted within a household,” continued Marler. “If one family member is sick, just a few bacteria can infect others, so right now it is important to treat any diarrheal illness as potentially serious.”

Consumer resource: Family Health Guide for E. coli