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

Somalia: No Popular Elections in 2016

In interview Wednesday with VOA, President Mohamud says 'one person, one vote' elections will not be possible due to continuing insecurity More

Scientists Predict Climate Change Will Increase Child Malnutrition

Public health expert in Germany says that by 2050, 25 million more children's lives will be put at risk because of lack of nutrients tied to climate change More

Erdogan in China Amid Tensions on Uighurs, Missile System

Turkey's president has criticized China's heavy-handed policies toward Uighurs in violence-plagued Xinjiang region, where China says it is fighting foreign-backed separatists 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.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs