Saturday, June 4, 2011

E. Coli outbreak and my experience with bacteria

I have real empathy for public health responders who are working to locate the source of the E. Coli outbreak in Germany. That the transmission is via food—not person to person—is at least a small consolation, because it means it is easier to contain. The challenge comes with pinpointing the contaminated food.

In May-July 2008, my workplace dealt with a salmonella outbreak. Salmonellosis is one of the most common types of food poisoning. In our case, testing included samples of jalapeno peppers, Serrano peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, guacamole, hot sauce, and assorted other foods such as crushed red pepper, salt, garlic, and tomatillo. These were foods that those sickened had all eaten within the window of time before symptoms manifest (eight to 72 hours). Environmental samples were also tested. Of 4,800 specimens tested, 504 were positive for various strains (42 different strains were identified) of salmonella. During the peak of the outbreak, 35 staff members worked an average of 575 hours a week on the laboratory testing alone. Hopefully that gives you an idea of the thousands of variables and how they make pinpointing the exact cause of a food-borne outbreak like, well, searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

According to the World Health Organization, the E. Coli bacteria has sickened 1,500 people and killed 18 people. Testing has identified a combination of two known strains of E. Coli to form a new and more virulent strain. The worst part is that not only is this strain resistant to antibiotics, treatment with antibiotics breaks apart the bacteria’s cells, which releases more toxins. Therefore, the only treatment is supportive therapy, which means fluid replacement, blood transfusions, and dialysis in the case of kidney failure. As with any outbreak, finding the means to stop the spread depends on finding the source.

If the E. Coli outbreak is not scary enough, take a moment to study the HealthMap—a real-time display of current outbreaks around the world that is as fascinating as it is frightening.


  1. Is the kidney failure associated with E. Coli permanent, or do the kidneys recover once the body fights off the infection?

  2. Good question. A doctor would have to determine on a case-by-case basis, but if the person is otherwise in good health it is possible that normal kidney function could be recovered.

  3. Well, I certainly hope that's the case. Thanks.

  4. Epidemiology is such a fascinating subject. I find it amazing to know that more germs live on and in us than there are cells in our entire body.

    We of course rely on a type of E. coli to help us with digestion (i.e. our normal gut flora). Yet, it's strange to think that there are other forms of E. coli that can harm us and can even hybridize with less virulent E. coli.
    Sneaky little critters!