News / Europe

E coli: Good Bacteria Gone Bad

Outbreak in Europe focuses attention on deadly strain

Samples are taken from a cucumber for a molecular biological test in Brno, Czech Republic on Wednesday, June 1, 2011.
Samples are taken from a cucumber for a molecular biological test in Brno, Czech Republic on Wednesday, June 1, 2011.

Multimedia

Audio

As a major outbreak of a highly toxic strain of E. coli bacteria continues to sicken residents of Europe, medical experts are racing to find the source.

E. coli has become a growing public health problem in recent years. The bacteria doesn't usually cause any trouble, says University of Minnesota microbiology professor Michael Sadowski. "E. coli is a normal inhabitant of the intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals."

That means you, me, our livestock and even wild animals are all carrying strains of E. coli around in our guts. The types that cause disease are rare, Sadowski says.

"The majority of E. coli are in fact considered to be harmless. And they carry out various biochemical processes in your intestine and they help you digest food."

E. coli and how it is transmitted

E. coli is an abbreviation for Escherichia, which is a large and diverse group of bacteria. Most strains are harmless, others can cause illness. Symptoms include stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. The major source is cattle, but other animals, foods and liquids may spread contamination to people.

  • Shiga toxin-producing E. coli

    This is a dangerous form of E. coli known by the acronym STEC. The best known strain of this STEC (also called 0157) was identified in 1982. Transmission and symptoms are similar to the most common form of E. coli.

  • EHEC

    A very serious infection is enterohaemorrhagic E. coli known by the acronym EHEC. It produces toxins, known as verotoxins or Shiga-like toxins. It may lead to life threatening diseases such as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS.

  • HUS

    Scientists believe this is responsible for the European outbreak, originating from a potentially life threatening strain of STEC (0104). HUS afflicts the kidneys, blood and central nervous system.

And the majority have remained relatively harmless until fairly recently, says University of Minnesota food safety professor Francisco Diez. "We didn't have this type of organism before 1982."

That's when the first deadly strain of E. coli appeared in hamburger meat in the United States. Before then, Diez says, E. coli wasn't even considered a disease-causing germ.

According to Diez, it is not clear exactly how this new virulence developed. It may have been changes in the bacteria, or changes in the way food is produced or distributed. Whatever the cause, E. coli is now turning up in a growing number of fruits and vegetables including apples, lettuce, and spinach.

For a germ that was first found in meat, it seems like a long way to the produce aisle. But Diez says there is a connection.


"We've seen an increase in cases of produce-associated outbreaks, but ultimately the source is cattle."

He says cattle-manure fertilizer that has not been well composted may still carry live bacteria from the animals’ gut. Or manure may contaminate irrigation water. It could also be on the hands of someone picking or sorting the produce. Add storage, transportation, and preparation as other places between the farm and the fork where food can become contaminated with the bacteria.

That's part of why tracing an outbreak to its source is so difficult. In Europe, officials originally blamed Spanish-grown cucumbers, but now they are not so sure. Other suspects include tomatoes and lettuce.

The problem is, those are all common salad ingredients.

"It's hard to find enough people that only ate one, and only ate one once in the time period before their infection," says Christopher Braden, head of the foodborne disease section at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention." They're commonly eaten. They're commonly eaten together. So to try to tease one apart as to which one is the culprit can be difficult."

Spain maintains that its cucumbers have been falsely accused. Spanish farmers are losing huge amounts of money, and they are furious.

The CDC was in a similar position in 2008 when it blamed tomatoes for a salmonella outbreak that ultimately was pinned on peppers.

Braden says it can be a hard decision to make when you have preliminary information that points to a suspect. "And in the meantime, people are getting ill and possibly dying in large numbers. Sometimes there's a real balancing act between being fast and being right. Often times it's really hard to do both."

He adds that, if their first suspicions proved correct, they could also be criticized if they did not act.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the current European outbreak, and it will likely be some time before they are all resolved.

In the meantime, the advice remains the same: wash your hands after using the toilet, and before preparing food and eating, and wash counters and utensils that come in contact with raw meat.

And if you are concerned about the cleanliness of raw vegetables, cook them well.

You May Like

Official: S. Sudan President, Rebel Leader to Meet in Tanzania

Talks part of effort to end conflict in country that has left more than 10,000 people dead, displaced more than 1.5 million others More

Dutch Deny Link to Mystery Submarine off Sweden

Netherlands denies Russian claim that 'foreign vessel' photographed in waters off Sweden could be Dutch More

China Boosts Efforts to Help Afghan, Regional Stability

Observers say China’s increased regional involvement are due to concerns that Afghan instability and the presence of anti-China militants in Pakistani border areas could fuel Xinjiang troubles More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fighti
X
Zana Omer
October 18, 2014 6:37 PM
The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.
Video

Video Church for Atheists Goes Global

Atheists, by definition, do not believe in God. So they should have no need of a church. But two years ago, a pair of British stand-up comedians decided to create one. Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans told the BBC they envisioned “something like church but without God". Their “Sunday Assembly” movement has grown from a single congregation in London to dozens of churches around the world. Reporter Mike Osborne visited with the members of a Sunday Assembly that now meets regularly in Nashville.
Video

Video Robot Locates Unexploded Underwater Mines

Many educators believe that hands-on experience is the best way to learn. Proving that the method works is a project developed by a group of students at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. They rose up to a challenge posted by the U.S. Department of Defense and successfully designed and built an underwater robot for locating submerged unexploded ordnance. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's JFK Hospital Reopens After Temporary Ebola Exposure

JFK Hospital is Liberia’s largest and one of its oldest medical facilities. The hospital had to close temporarily following the deaths of two leading doctors from Ebola. It is now getting back on its feet, with the maternity ward being the first section to reopen. Benno Muchler has more for VOA News from Monrovia.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Expose Generation Gap

Most of the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are students seeking democracy. Idealistic youths say while the older generation worries about the present, they are fighting for the territory's future. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Hong Kong.
Video

Video Liberians Living in US Struggle From Afar as Ebola Ravages Homeland

More than 8,000 Liberians live in New York City, more than in any other city outside of Liberia itself. As VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports, with the Ebola virus ravaging their homeland, there is no peace of mind for these New Yorkers.
Video

Video Kurds See War-Ravaged Kobani As Political, Emotional Heartland

Intense fighting is continuing between Islamic State militants -- also known as ISIS or ISIL -- and Kurdish forces around the Syrian town of Kobani, on the Turkish border. The U.S. said it carried out at least nine airstrikes against Islamic State positions Friday. Meanwhile the U.N. has warned that hundreds of civilians would be massacred if the town falls to the militants. Henry Ridgwell looks at the strategic significance of the city.

All About America

AppleAndroid