E. coli Infection

Hamburgers are as American as baseball and apple pie. But hamburgers also can be a source of serious and sometimes fatal illness.

The culprit: a virulent strain of a common bacteria found in the human intestine. The vast majority of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria are harmless, normal inhabitants of the intestinal tract. However, some strains of E. coli can cause disease.

One such strain — E. coli 0157:H7 — is responsible for an estimated 20,000 illnesses and 250 deaths a year. Many of those who suffer a serious E. coli 0157:H7 infection are young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, all of whom have weakened defenses against the bacteria.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that E. coli 0157:H7 and other food-borne illnesses are increasingly common.

Most E. coli 0157:H7 infections can be traced to contaminated meat. The bacteria live in animals and contaminate the meat during slaughter, even under the cleanest conditions. Just a tiny bit of E. coli 0157:H7 can contaminate an entire ton of meat that is then shipped to restaurants and grocery stores nationwide. E. coli 0157:H7 also is hardy: freezing doesn’t kill it, and it can survive temperatures up to 160 degrees F.

E. coli 0157:H7 infections are most closely associated with ground beef. In steaks, ribs or chops, the bacteria remain on the surface and are easily killed during cooking. But E. coli in ground meat is mixed into the patty, where it can be hard to kill if meat isn’t cooked thoroughly. It is safe, however, if the meat is cooked throughout.

Don’t think you’re safe by not eating hamburger, though. The bacteria also can affect other kinds of meat and even fresh fruits and vegetables, if produce is washed in contaminated water or prepared on surfaces that were in contact with infected meat. Fresh fruit products such as apple cider also can be infected.

In September 2006, an E. coli outbreak linked to contaminated spinach sickened at least 146 people in 23 states.

Person-to-person contact also can be at fault. If you prepare hamburgers, wipe your hands on a kitchen towel and then wipe your child’s face with the towel, you may unknowingly pass the bacteria to your child. The same thing can happen if you put burgers back on the same plate that held the raw meat, or chop vegetables for salad on the same cutting board used to tenderize steak.

When E. coli 0157:H7 is ingested, it grows in the intestinal tract and produces toxins in the intestine, causing bloody diarrhea and stomach cramps about three to five days after contact. This can last for up to 10 days, accompanied by vomiting, nausea and fever. In most cases, the infection resolves itself with no after effects.

But in a small number of cases — usually in young children and those with compromised immune systems — the toxins can cause a life-threatening condition called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS). Patients with HUS develop acute kidney failure. Although HUS can be treated, its effects may not resolve.

If your child ever has bloody diarrhea, seek medical attention immediately. Do not give the child medications (such as Lomotil® or Imodium®) to stop the diarrhea.

With regard to handling beef, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspects beef. However, its stamp of approval does not necessarily mean that the meat you buy is bacteria-free. The USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend these steps to prevent E. coli 0157:H7 infection:

When visiting petting zoos or county fairs, make sure your child washes his hands with soap and water immediately after touching any animals. If soap and water isn’t available, use hand sanitizer such as Purell® in the meantime.

If your child has bloody diarrhea, remember to seek medical attention immediately and wash your hands thoroughly after you help him in the bathroom or change his diaper.

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