America not Immune to E. Coli Outbreak

E. coli strain causing alarm

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The E. coli outbreak in Europe continues to expand with the US Centers for Disease Control reporting 470 sickened with a type of kidney failure associated with E coli and nine confirmed deaths.

In the United States, the CDC already has confirmed three suspected cases in individuals who had recently traveled to Germany, where it is suspected that the infections originated.

But as unease starts to mount in the United States, the public is wondering: could it happen here?

Not only could it happen here, but it already has. The contaminated hamburger meat scare in the early 1980s involved the same organism currently causing concern in Europe. And while the current outbreak is not currently affecting the United States, there is no reason to believe the US is immune.

"Wash all vegetables as a precaution."

Dr. Pablo Okhuysen, professor of medicine at the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas Health Medical School at Houston said the outbreak is simply a consequence of the global economy,

"We've become a global economy with the consumption of vegetables and other foods handled in large volumes and transported across countries in short order," Okhuysen said. "It is impossible to be inspecting, culturing and testing every single food item exported from one country to another. You can't inspect every single item; it's not feasible. The food would rot."

Though Okhuysen said abilities to detect food borne outbreaks in real time have progressed in recent years, detecting potentially contaminated crops prior to an outbreak can be extremely difficult.

"Part of the solution is a more robust public health infrastructure with enhanced surveillance for food safety and the sources of food items," Okhuysen said, noting that part of that effort should involve assisting other countries with safe practices. "But I think we all need to go back to the basics and wash (foods such as fruits and vegetables) before you eat them."

The CDC has not yet pinpointed the source of the outbreak but German public health authorities have warned about eating tomatoes, leafy lettuce and cucumbers, particularly in the northern states of Germany. US officials have no new information that any of those items has been shipped to the US from Europe.

"We've had many outbreaks due to E coli but never one quite like this," said  Dr. Michael Donnenberg, professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology and associate chairman for research at the Department of Medicine for the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Donnenberg said the big difference is in the number of cases with severe complications, greater than what has previously been seen, and also because the strain in which the toxin was found had not been seen before. The strain of E coli found had a strain from one category but a toxin from a different category, a combination not previously observed.

The strain of STEC causing the illnesses, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O104:H4 (STEC O104:H4) is very rare, and the CDC has no confirmation that any cases of the infection has ever been reported in the United States.

Individuals should seek medical treatment and ask that medical providers test them for STEC if they have recently visited Germany and show symptoms of infection including severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (which is often bloody), and vomiting. If there is fever, it usually is not very high.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 3, 2011
Last Updated:
June 4, 2011