E. coli Outbreak Extends to Washtenaw County


Over half of the confirmed cases in Michigan have resulted in hospitalization - photo courtesy of unsplash.com

By Lindsay Nixon, RN, BSN – Guest Contributor

Over the past two weeks, health departments across the state have been investigating reports of a dangerous strain of E. coli that has been reported. On Friday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced their investigation has now extended into Washtenaw County. According to MDHHS, the number of reported cases of E. coli infections this month is already five times the number reported in 2021, with over half of confirmed cases requiring hospitalization.

While the source of the outbreak is not clear, many of the affected individuals have reported they consumed food items from Wendy’s restaurants that contained romaine lettuce. Wendy’s has removed the questionable lettuce from their restaurants in the region and has used alternative lettuce in its place while the investigation continues.

The bacteria responsible for the current outbreak is E. coli O157, a specific strain that releases Shiga-toxin. Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) is more dangerous than other strains due to the risk of developing hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS occurs in 5-10% of people with STEC and affects the kidneys. People with HUS become fatigued, pale, and have problems urinating. Children and older adults have the highest risk for severe illness.

E. coli is a bacterium that normally lives within the gut of people and animals. When an E. coli infection occurs in humans, it is because the bacteria has found its way outside of the intestinal tract and is able to cause an infection. E. coli infections are usually traced back to contaminated food or water but can sometimes be a result of improper butchering procedures.

To reduce the risk of an E. coli infection:

 - Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds after using the bathroom or handling raw foods

 - Do not use sauces on cooked foods that were used on raw foods (marinades, barbecue sauce)

 - Do not place cooked foods on a plate or surface that had raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs

 - Cook meat to its recommended temperature, using a food thermometer

 - Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water (no soap required)

 - Do not swallow water from lakes, ponds, rivers or swimming pools

E. coli infection can cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Sometimes, people can have blood in their bowel movements. In most cases, symptoms start 3 or 4 days after exposure and improve after 5 to 7 days.

Luckily, most people recover from STEC without treatment. Most infections only require rest, hydration, and supportive care at home. If you are having trouble with diarrhea, vomiting so much that you can’t keep fluids down, or have signs of dehydration (not urinating much, feeling dizzy, having a dry mouth or throat), you should notify your healthcare provider.

If you have symptoms of a food-related illness during an outbreak, you should notify your local health department as well. It is helpful to keep track of everything you have eaten in the past week, and where the food was purchased. In case the illness worsens, having a written or digital record of food items helps health department officials trace the source of the outbreak and is easier to do at the beginning of symptoms, rather than later.

For more information on E. coli, including updates on the current outbreak, you can visit https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/. For information on food safety tips and food-related illness outbreaks, visit https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/. For the most up-to-date national information, you can subscribe to an electronic mailing list offered by the CDC that provides updates on food safety via their website.

The health department and CDC will conduct interviews to identify where food-borne illnesses originate in an attempt to prevent further infections. - photo courtesy of cdc.gov
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