(HealthCentersOnline) - A current outbreak of E. coli infections has brought the foodborne illness to national attention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 73,000 cases of E. coli infection occur every year in the United States, resulting in approximately 2,100 hospitalizations and around 60 deaths each year. Infections are more common in the summer than in the winter. Outbreaks occur when two or more cases of a particular strain of E. coli result from the same source.
Many strains of E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria are harmless and occur naturally in human and cow intestines. However, some strains can cause illness. In most cases, the illness is mild, with symptoms including bloody diarrhea and severe abdominal pain and cramping. However, some cases may lead to hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a form of kidney failure linked to profuse bleeding and anemia.
In most cases, an infection of E. coli results from consuming food or water that has been contaminated by bacteria-laden human or animal feces. In the United States, this is primarily due to eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef. Foods can also be contaminated through the use of contaminated fertilizer or irrigation water, when washed with contaminated water or when placed on contaminated surfaces.
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In addition to the current outbreak, nearly a dozen significant outbreaks of E. coli infection have occurred in the past decade. They have been associated with a variety of sources, including undercooked beef, greens from salad bars, contaminated well water and swimming pools and unpasteurized apple juice.
The best ways to prevent E. coli infection include practicing good hygiene and food safety habits. Ground beef should be thoroughly cooked and fruits and vegetables should always be washed thoroughly before eating. Unpasteurized milk and fruit juices should be avoided, and regular washing of hands and cooking surfaces is recommended.
Due to a current E. coli outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration has advised consumers against eating fresh spinach or products containing fresh spinach until further notice. The spinach linked to this outbreak has been traced to produce farms in California. Spinach from these farms may have been sold throughout the United States, as well as in Canada and Mexico. More than 100 people have reported illnesses traced to fresh spinach consumption.
Physicians are required to report confirmed cases of certain types of E. coli infections to public health authorities. Local and state health departments may then investigate outbreaks to identify the source and prevent the spread of the illness.
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