Local News

State Continues To Investigate Cause Of E. coli Outbreak

Posted November 3, 2004 7:54 a.m. EST

— The number of people definitely infected with

E. coli

bacteria has risen to 18, with nine more suspected cases, state health officials said.

At least 14 of the cases have ties to the State Fair petting zoo, though officials are unsure if that is the source of the infection, since two people in Mecklenburg County became ill well before the fair opened.

There are five confirmed cases in Wake County, four in Mecklenburg, two in Union, and one each in Wilson, Lee, Cleveland and Chatham counties, the state Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday.

Although the illness is often associated with eating undercooked ground beef, it is suspected that these cases may have been contracted through direct contact with live animals, state Epidemiologist Jeffrey Engel said.

Outbreaks are often associated with fairs and petting farms, however the health department said it is still exploring every possible source.

Engel emphasized that state residents should be on the lookout for symptoms associated with E. coli including diarrhea -- loose or watery stools -- bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal cramping, nausea and dehydration. Patients may or may not have a low grade fever.

Sickness caused by E. coli may also cause hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious complication that occurs in high-risk people such as children that can cause kidney failure, seizures and in some cases death.

Anyone with symptoms should contact their doctor or health care provider immediately. Young children 5 and under are particularly susceptible and parents should not delay seeking medical attention if they show symptoms.

As the state continues to track down the source of the disease, Engel said that residents can help themselves by practicing prevention measures, especially in schools and child day-care facilities.

The best way to reduce the risk of getting E. coli, especially if a friend or family member is sick with the disease, is careful and diligent hand-washing.

Teachers and school officials should make sure they have plenty of soap and paper towels for their students. If teachers notice a student who appears to have any of the symptoms associated with E. coli they should contact the parents as soon as possible.

E. coli is associated with petting zoos because animals carry the bacteria in their intestines. People pick up E. coli by eating contaminated meat or through contact with manure, animals or contaminated surfaces.

A number of the cases identified so far have been in contact with farm animals, however public health disease investigators have not yet determined the exact source or sources of the human cases.

State public health officials are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to alert other states to report E. coli infections.