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Health Authorities Warn Americans Not to Eat Contaminated Spinach

U.S. health officials are still trying to pinpoint the source of an E. coli outbreak that has caused at least one death and sickened scores of others across the country.

U.S. health officials normally tell Americans to eat more leafy green vegetables. Now, they are being warned to stay away from fresh spinach. The reason: at least some spinach grown in California and shipped around the country has been tainted with a particularly virulent strain of E.coli bacteria.

Gwyn Wellborn spent 13 days in the hospital after eating a spinach salad. "I was scared,” she says. “They weren't sure if I'd make it another couple hours or another day."

Wellborn is 27 years old, but an elderly woman in the Midwestern state of Wisconsin died from E.coli. Wisconsin Health Commissioner Bevan Baker said, "The elderly and the very young are those we are concerned about."

That's because this particular strain, E.coli O157:H7, is particularly virulent. It can cause bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal cramps and hemolytic uremic syndrome. That's a disease that causes kidney failure. In young children, most cases of hemolyic uremic syndrome are caused by this particular strain of E. coli. And those infected can pass it on to others.

Dr. Roger Clemens from the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy says,

"Most organisms such as E.coli you have to consume large quantities to make you sick, what sets this apart is you only have to consume small quantities to make you sick."

E.coli is found in the intestines of healthy animals. Caroline Smith DeWaal with the Center for Science in the Public Interest explains. "The bacteria lives in the guts of cows and other bovine and it would get on to the fresh spinach through manure, through contaminated irrigation water."

And it could have contaminated the spinach through other means. Dr. Robert Brackett and others at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are trying to pinpoint where the contamination started and how it spread.

"It could be contaminated water, it could be wildlife, it could be the workers. When you get to the plant it could again be workers in the plant."

The spinach is chopped and washed and mixed together, then shipped throughout the United States. Health officials are telling Americans, for the time being, not to eat raw spinach and to practice good hygiene with plenty of handwashing.