Today we’re talking about food poisoning, and a serious increase in STEC cases in Southwest Idaho – What the heck is STEC?
So, the past month was National Food Safety Month and coincidentally here in Southwest Idaho, the Department of Health and Welfare along with our local public health district partners have had an unusually large number of reports about infections caused by Shiga-toxin producing E. Coli – or STEC for short –that has resulted in several hospitalizations of very young children, so now’s a good time to understand what STEC is, what to watch for and how to reduce the risk of infection to yourself or your children.
Let’s start with E. coli, which we hear a lot about in terms of food poisoning, is E. coli a disease itself?
No, Escherichia coli, or E. coli, is actually a group of bacteria that normally live in the intestines of people and animals. Most types of E. coli are harmless and are an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract. But some E. coli are indeed pathogenic, meaning they can cause illness, usually in the form of upset stomach and diarrhea. These E. coli can be transmitted through contaminated water or food, or through contact with people or animals that have contracted the pathogenic E. coli strains.
OK, then what the heck is STEC?
Some kinds of E. coli cause disease by making a toxin called Shiga toxin. The bacteria that make these toxins are called “Shiga toxin-producing” E. coli, or STEC for short. The most commonly identified STEC in North America is E. coli O157:H7, and when you hear news reports about outbreaks of “E. coli” infections, they are usually talking about E. coli O157.
Who can get S-TEC?
Really anyone of any age can become infected, but very young children and the elderly are more likely that others to develop severe illness and hemolytic uremic syndrome, known as HUS, which can result in severe kidney damage. Even healthy older children and young adults can become seriously ill. What’s alarming is we have seen about double the number of STEC cases this year in the southwestern Idaho region than we normally see and many of those cases are among young children less than five years old.
What are the symptoms of STEC?
They can vary, but often symptoms include nausea, severe stomach cramps, diarrhea that might be bloody, and vomiting. Symptoms often start slowly with mild belly pain or non-bloody diarrhea that worsens over several days. Some people will also get a low fever, less than 101˚F.
When should parents realize their child has something more serious than an upset tummy and go see their healthcare provider?
If you or your child is experiencing diarrhea that lasts for more than 3 days, or it is accompanied by high fever, blood in the stool, or so much vomiting that liquids can’t be kept down and very little urine is being passed, contact your healthcare provider. And if your child is diagnosed with an STEC infection, watch for decreased frequency of urination, feeling very tired, and losing pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids. These are signs of HUS and require immediate medical care.
Last, what can people do to reduce their risk of getting -TEC?
Here are the basics: Wash your hands frequently, and especially after using the bathroom and before preparing or eating food. You should always cook meat to the required temperature, avoid raw milk, don’t drink untreated water or water in pools, and don’t cross-contaminate your cooking area by washing every surface and utensil thoroughly when cutting up and preparing raw meat.
A Closer Look at Your Health airs weekly on KBOI AM 670; this is the transcript of the Oct. 2, 2018 program.
CDC’s E. coli resource page: https://www.cdc.gov/ecoli/index.html
DHW’s Gastrointestinal Illness Toolbox – Resources for Healthcare Providers: https://healthandwelfare.idaho.gov/Health/DiseasesConditions/GastrointestinalIllnessToolbox/tabid/1517/Default.asp
How to report a foodborne illness (General Public): https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/outbreaks/investigating-outbreaks/report-illness/public.html
How to report a foodborne illness (Healthcare Professional): https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/outbreaks/investigating-outbreaks/report-illness/healthcare.html