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Sunday, January 20, 2013

E.Coli O157:H7


When I was growing up we used to talk about getting summer complaint, a common ailment that caused diarrhea and sometimes vomiting. We more or less knew it was because of some bad bacteria that we had eaten, it usually wasn’t serious and didn’t last long.  
I forget when I began hearing about the E.Coli bacteria. Certainly when we started traveling the world in the 1980’s it was common knowledge that in some countries in Africa, Asia and central America, that the natives could cope with some types of E.Coli but they made us sick and we had to be careful. Now in every country including Canada, we need to be vigilant because although most E.coli strains are not at all harmful to humans, there is one kind, dubbed O157:H7, that is a mutant and can cause infections that are life threatening.

It was around 1975 when the O157:H7 strain was first isolated and It was first recognized as a pathogen in 1982 when there were unusual outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness in the US and Japan that caused numerous deaths. The O157:H7 E.coli strain was traced to both contaminated ground meat and lettuce leaves and these sources still appear to be the most prevalent culprits carrying the infection. Since then illnesses caused by the mutant E.Coli bacteria have become more common and a contaminated water supply in Walkerton, Canada in 2000 that caused 7 deaths, brought the problem to the forefront.   

Most people know that Escherichia coli [or E.Coli] is a family of microscopic bacteria that are normally found in most warm blooded creatures and form about 0.1% of the 100 trillion ‘good’ bacteria in our gut that help digest food, create vitamins and fight off harmful bacteria. However when this week there was yet another serious local case of infection headlined in our newspaper, I figured it was time to know more about the dangerous O157:H7 E.coli strain - how to recognize if you’re a victim of it - and what to do to right away if you are.

Some humans and beef cattle can be infected with the mutant O157:H7 strain and tolerate it but unfortunately the bacteria can be found in their feces. If cattle 'manure’, is not well composted and used as plant fertilizer, it can be transmitted to vegetables crops. I hasten to add that organic farmers who sell their produce to the public are strictly regulated and use only certified organic fertilizers. They are inspected regularly and their produce is appropriately labeled 

Many bacteria that are on food we eat, are killed off in the strong acid in our stomach but the harmful O157:H7 E. coli can survive. When they enter the small intestine, produce toxins that harm the lining of the intestine so they can leak through it and get into the blood stream that way. If you are sick and your diarrhea contains bright red blood – go to hospital right away. When they get into the blood, the O157:H7 E. coli bacteria attack the red blood cells and can cause mini-clots that clog the small vessels in the kidneys and cause them to shut down so drink lots of fluid and get medical attention - you may need dialysis for a time. 

To avoid any E. coli O157:H7 contamination, wash your hands before handling food, cook ground meat thoroughly and check out my post on ‘bacteria and soap’. In it I have written about living in third world countries with contaminated food and water and how I coped totally successfully with keeping fruits and vegetables free of harmful bacteria by simply soaking them in a big bowl of water with a few drops of liquid detergent in it - enough to cause a bubble or two. If you like, you can rinse in bottled or boiled water but I usually just shake off the water.  I still do this when I’m not sure of the origins of produce - it’s quick and easy and safe.  Rie


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