Escherichia coli(E.coli) Infections

There are many types of  Escherichia coli(E.coli) bacteria that cause various infections including  urinary tract infections. Still others, cause gastrointestinal illness including diarrhea and/or vomiting. Gastrointestinal disease occurs either by the bacteria directly damaging the intestine, or by a toxin they make.  E.coli is typically found in the intestines of cows and contaminated soil, vegetation, water and ground beef. People usually get infected by drinking contaminated water or eating uncooked contaminated meat or (unwashed) vegetables. The infection usually is limited to diarrhea with some blood in it and severe abdominal pain. However, certain strains are more dangerous and potentially deadly.

The E.coli O-157 strain caused the outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario and is the germ behind the “Hamburger Disease” and the 2017-18 romaine lettuce related outbreaks. O-157 secretes a poisonous “verotoxin”. A serious complication of E.coli O-157  is Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS). HUS can occur within a week or two after the initial infection. In HUS, the E.coli toxins cause the red blood cells to break down resulting in severe anemia. The toxins can also cause kidney failure requiring dialysis. Unfortunately, HUS can cause death. Among the survivors, there can be a high rate of long-term complications.  Most of these complications tend to occur in young children, the elderly and persons with chronic medical conditions.

Although tests that identify these bacteria are available, there is no specific treatment. Prevention is our best defense. Here are some tips adapted from the Public Health Agency of Canada:

  • Wash your hands after using the washroom, before, during and after preparing food and before eating.
  • Read labels and follow cooking and storage instructions for all foods.
  • Thoroughly wash raw fruits and vegetables (including those with skins and rinds that aren’t eaten) with clean, safe running water before you prepare and eat them. Discard outer leaves of leafy vegetables before washing. Scrub fruits and vegetables that have firm surfaces such as oranges, melons, potatoes and carrots. Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on produce. Bacteria can grow in these places.
  • Use warm, soapy water to clean knives, cutting boards, utensils, counters and any surfaces that have come in contact with food, especially meat and fish. Disinfect afterwards with a disinfectant solution.
  • Always cook meat to the proper temperature using a food thermometer.
  • Refrigerate or freeze perishable food within two hours of cooking.
  • Freeze or consume leftovers within four days of cooking.
  • Always reheat leftovers to a minimum temperature of 74ºC (165°F).
  • Keep your refrigerator clean and at a temperature below 4ºC, or 40ºF
  • Do not store raw meats on a shelf above ready-to-eat foods in the refrigerator.
  • Avoid unpasteurized juices and raw milk and
  • Make sure that drinking water and water you swim in is chlorinated and properly monitored.