What is E. coli?
E. coli O157:H7 was identified for the first time at the CDC in 1975, but it was not until seven years later, in 1982, that E. coli O157:H7 was conclusively determined to be a cause of enteric disease. Following outbreaks of foodborne illness that involved several cases of bloody diarrhea, E. coli O157:H7 was firmly associated with hemorrhagic colitis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated in 1999 that 73,000 cases of E. coli O157:H7 occur each year in the United States. Approximately 2,000 people are hospitalized, and 60 people die as a direct result of E. coli O157:H7 infections and complications. The majority of infections are thought to be foodborne-related, although E.coli O157:H7 accounts for less than 1% of all foodborne illness.
E. coli O157:H7 bacteria are believed to mostly live in the intestines of cattle but have also been found in the intestines of chickens, deer, sheep, goats, and pigs. E. coli O157:H7 does not make the animals that carry it ill; the animals are merely the reservoir for the bacteria.
While the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with E. coli O157:H7 have involved ground beef, such outbreaks have also involved unpasteurized apple and orange juice, unpasteurized milk, alfalfa sprouts, and water. An outbreak can also be caused by person-to-person transmission of the bacteria in homes and in settings like daycare centers, hospitals, and nursing homes.
Symptoms of an E. coli O157:H7 Infection
E. coli O157:H7 infection is characterized by the sudden onset of abdominal pain and severe cramps, followed within 24 hours by diarrhea. As the disease progresses, the diarrhea becomes watery and then may become grossly bloody – bloody to naked eye. Vomiting can also occur, but there is usually no fever. The incubation period for the disease (the period from ingestion of the bacteria to the start of symptoms) is typically 3 to 9 days, although shorter and longer periods are not that unusual. An incubation period of less than 24 hours would be unusual, however. In most infected individuals, the intestinal illness lasts about a week and resolves without any long-term problems.
Detection and treatment of E. coli O157:H7
Infection with E. coli O157:H7 is usually confirmed by detecting the bacteria in the stool of the infected individual. Antibiotics do not improve the illness, and some medical researchers believe that medications can increase the risk of complications. Therefore, apart from good supportive care, such as close attention to hydration and nutrition, there is no specific therapy for E. coli O157:H7 infection. The recent finding that a toxin produced by E. coli O157:H7 initially greatly speeds up blood coagulation may lead to medical therapies in the future that could forestall the most serious consequences. Most individuals recover within two weeks.
Preventing an E. coli O157:H7 Infection
Eating undercooked ground beef is the most important risk factor for acquiring E. coli O157:H7. Cook all ground beef and hamburger thoroughly. Because ground beef can turn brown before disease causing bacteria are killed, use a digital instant read meat thermometer to ensure thorough cooking. Hamburgers should be cooked until a thermometer inserted into several parts of the patty, including the thickest part, reads at least 160? F. Persons who cook ground beef without using a thermometer can decrease their risk of illness by not eating ground beef patties that are still pink in the middle. If you are served an undercooked hamburger or other ground beef product in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking.
Avoid spreading harmful bacteria in your kitchen. Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters, and utensils with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat. Never place cooked hamburgers or ground beef on the unwashed plate that held raw patties. Wash meat thermometers in between tests of patties that require further cooking.
Drink only pasteurized milk, juice, or cider. Commercial juice with an extended shelf life that is sold at room temperature (such as juice in cardboard boxes or vacuum-sealed juice in glass containers) has been pasteurized, although this is generally not indicated on the label. Most juice concentrates are also heated sufficiently to kill pathogens.
Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, especially those that will not be cooked. Children younger than 5 years of age, immunocompromised persons, and the elderly should avoid eating alfalfa sprouts until their safety can be assured. Methods to decontaminate alfalfa seeds and sprouts are being investigated.
Drink municipal water that has been treated with chlorine or other effective disinfectants, or bottled water that has be sterilized with ozone or reverse osmosis (almost all major brands use one or the other method).
Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming, especially pool water in public swimming facilities.
Avoid petting zoos and other animal exhibits unless there are good hand washing facilities available and other sanitation measures have been taken. Wash your hands and your children’s hands after handling animals.
Make sure that persons with diarrhea, especially children, wash their hands carefully with soap after bowel movements to reduce the risk of spreading infection, and that persons wash hands after changing soiled diapers. Anyone with a diarrheal illness should avoid swimming in public pools or lakes, sharing baths with others, and preparing food for others.
What is Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome?
Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) is a severe, life-threatening complication of an E. coli O157:H7 bacterial infection. Although most people recover from an E. coli O157:H7 infection, about 5-10% of infected individuals goes on to develop HUS. E. coli O157:H7 is responsible for over 90% of the cases of HUS that develop in North America. Some organs appear more susceptible than others to the damage caused by these toxins, possibly due to the presence of increased numbers of toxin-receptors. These organs include the kidney, pancreas, and brain. Visit the Marler Clark sponsored Web site about Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome for more information.
What are the Symptoms associated with Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome?
About ten percent of individuals with E. coli O157:H7 infections (mostly young children) goes on to develop Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, a severe, potentially life-threatening complication. HUS is an extremely complex process that researchers are still trying to fully explain.
Its three central features describe the essence of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome: destruction of red blood cells (hemolytic anemia), destruction of platelets (those blood cells responsible for clotting, resulting in low platelet counts, or thrombocytopenia), and acute renal failure. In HUS, renal failure is caused when the nephrons, or filtering units, become occluded (blocked) by micro-thrombi, which are tiny blood clots. In almost all cases, the filtering ability of the kidneys recovers as the body of the patient slowly dissolves the micro-thrombi within the microvessels.
A typical person is born with about one million filtering units, called nephrons, in each kidney. The core of the nephron is a bundle of tiny blood vessels, called a glomerulus, where osmotic exchange allows for the filtration of wastes that eventually collect in the urine and are excreted. During Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, the lack of blood flow to the nephrons can cause them to die or be damaged, just as heart muscle can die as the result of coronary vessel occlusion during a heart attack. Dead nephrons do not regenerate.
In general, the longer a patient suffers kidney failure, the greater the loss of filtering units as a result. At some point, the damage to the kidneys’ filtering units can be so severe that the patient will, over a period of years, lose kidney function and suffer end-stage renal disease (ESRD), which requires chronic dialysis or transplantation.
HUS can also cause transient or permanent damage to other organs, which include the pancreas, liver, brain, and heart. The essential pathogenic process is the same regardless of the organ affected: microthrombi inhibit necessary blood flow and cause tissue death or damage. During the acute stage of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, patients must be carefully monitored for these extra-renal complications. It is very difficult to predict the severity and course of HUS once it initiates.
The active stage of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome may be defined as that period of time during which there is evidence of hemolysis and the platelet count is less than 100,000. In HUS, the active stage usually lasts an average of six days (range, 2-16 days). It is during the active stage that the complications of HUS per se usually occur.
Marler Clark, The Food Safety Law Firm, is the nation’s leading law firm representing victims of E. coli outbreaks and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). The E. coli lawyers of Marler Clark have represented thousands of victims of E. coli and other foodborne illness infections and have recovered over $600 million for clients. Marler Clark is the only law firm in the nation with a practice focused exclusively on foodborne illness litigation. Our E. coli lawyers have litigated E. coli and HUS cases stemming from outbreaks traced to ground beef, raw milk, lettuce, spinach, sprouts, and other food products. The law firm has brought E. coli lawsuits against such companies as Jack in the Box, Dole, ConAgra, Cargill, and Jimmy John’s. We have proudly represented such victims as Brianne Kiner, Stephanie Smith and Linda Rivera.
We are representing almost 30 people sickened in the Carbón Live Fire Mexican Grill E. col Outbreak and Lawsuit.