Non-Common E. Coli Forms Reported More Often in U.S., CDC Says

Non-Common E. Coli Forms Reported More Often in U.S.
A lab technician holds a bacteria culture that shows a positive infection of enterohemorrhagic E. coli, also known as the EHEC bacteria, from a patient at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Hamburg, Germany. Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The number of non-common forms of E. coli rose last year in the U.S., overcoming the most frequently detected strain in total cases, probably because of improved testing, federal health officials said.

There were 442 cases of E. coli O157, previously the most commonly detected type, and about 41 percent required medical care, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report. The other strains, which caused a similar toxin, produced 451 cases, and 15 percent of those victims were hospitalized, the CDC said. No cases were reported involving the German strain that has hit at least 2,429 people, killing 23.

About 48 million Americans are sickened yearly in the U.S. from contaminated food, with the most common cause being the Salmonella bacteria, the CDC reported. While E. coli O157 infections have dropped by about 50 percent since 1997, rates of Salmonella have remained the same, causing more hospitalizations and deaths than any other foodborne illness.

“The tragic E. coli outbreak in Europe reminds us that investing in prevention is the only way to provide the protection consumers expect,” said Michael Taylor, the deputy commissioner for foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in a conference call yesterday following release of the Atlanta-based CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

At least 674 people in Germany have developed a life-threatening complication from the E. coli O104:H4 strain since May 2, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The actual number of cases may be higher. That form of the bug produces a toxin that attacks the kidneys and blood vessels. Most cases have occurred in adult women.

Increased Testing

The U.S. has increased testing for non-O157 strains, which would include the German strain, said Chris Braden, the acting director of the CDC’s division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases.

“Pathogens change and emerge in different ways,” he said. “Even though we don’t expect the outbreak to jump to us, we need to invest in public health capacity.”

Salmonella hasn’t decreased in 15 years, the report found. The bacteria caused most of the burden of foodborne illness in 2010, with 8,256 cases and 2,290 people hospitalized.

Salmonella and E. coli are different bacteria that are both passed from the feces of people or animals to others. Salmonella can be found in meats, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. Poultry is the food most-associated with Salmonella outbreaks, according to the CDC.

In 2010, contamination of chicken feed led to a recall of 500 million eggs. The tainted eggs were produced by Wright County Eggs and Hillandale Farms of Iowa. About 1,300 people were sickened.

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