E. coli (short for Escherichia coli) is one of several bacteria that normally live in our intestines – one gram of faeces contains a billion E.coli cells! These cause no problems, but the bacterium can change properties and produce new strains such as type E.coli 0157:H7, which has acquired a gene that makes it produce a powerful, potentially lethal, toxin.
This dangerous bacterium has caused alarming breakouts of food poisoning. In America, 65 people in seven states contracted E. Coli infection from contaminated unpasteurised apple juice. In a case in Japan nearly 10,000 became ill and 12 deaths were reported as a result of slovenly hygiene attitudes by butchers. In November ’96, central Scotland witnessed its worst ever breakout of E.coli 0157 food poisoning with more than 140 infected cases and several deaths. An 80yr old church elder was the first to die. Children and the elderly are affected more seriously.
E.coli 0157 is named the ‘hamburger bug’, as minced meat can become a breeding ground for this dangerous bug which is often found in cattle and sheep. The bacterium is killed by thorough cooking – heating at 70 C for two minutes. The Scottish outbreak which was traced to cooked beefburgers, sausage rolls and pies from one butcher’s shop, suggesting that the infected meat hadn’t been adequately cooked. E.coli can also be transmitted through milk, cheese and untreated water, though some outbreaks have been traced to the storage of cooked meats below uncooked meats in the fridge, so that infected dangerous juices have dropped onto the lower shelves and their contents.
Other cases of E.coli have resulted from person to person transmission. Washing hands before handling food and especially after visits to the ‘loo’, will reduce this avenue of infection.
After 24hrs of infection with E.coli 0157, severe abdominal pain is experienced along with profuse watery diarrhoea and heavy blood loss via the rectum. A high fever develops and dehydration may ensue. After 10 days about 5% of sufferers develop kidney failure and sudden destruction of their red blood cells.
Treatment consists of counteracting the dehydration and loss of salts and minerals, with severe cases needing hospitalisation.