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E.coli: A Worry in the U.S. Too?

E.coli is nothing new, but today it is causing attention-grabbing headlines around the world. 

The reason: officials are reporting that 1,600 people have been sickened and 18 killed in Europe due to an outbreak of a new strain of E.coli. 

E.coli is primarily found in beef due to the presence of the organism in cow’s gastrointestinal system.  Some of the strains of E.coli are harmless, while others produce toxins that can cause severe gastrointestinal illness, and in some cases death.  Humans and other animals also carry certain strains of E.coli that do not produce these harmful toxins.

With the increasing use of natural fertilizers, including cow manure, harmful E.coli is now more frequently showing up in fruits and vegetables.  In fact, the source of this most recent outbreak is suspected to be fruits and salad vegetables.  And since women tend to have greener diets and consume more fruits and vegetables,  women currently represent 67 percent of those affected by the recent E.coli outbreak. Cases have also been reported in school-aged children.

E.coli is no joke. You can’t see it, but it can make you and your loved ones exceptionally ill. This recent outbreak is not cause for alarm in the United States because no cases have been reported, but it is always important to take steps to protect yourself from E.coli.  The best defense against E.coli is to wash your food thoroughly before eating it; this includes bagged, “ready-to-eat” lettuce, spinach, and other pre-cut vegetables.  Do not eat unwashed fruits and vegetables, and when possible cook foods, including meat, thoroughly.

An infection with toxin-producing E.coli is not like a regular gastrointestinal illness.  It is more intense, and it is important that you seek medical care and not self-medicate because some antibiotics and products like Imodium® may actually cause the E.coli-emitted toxins to damage your kidneys.  Visit WebMD to learn more about e.coli. 

Dominique Godfrey-Johnson, MPH, CPH is a public health epidemiologist with WakeMed Infection Prevention and Control.