E. coli Kills Two U.S. Children: Here’s What You Need to Know About the Bacteria

E. coli Kills Two U.S. Children: Here's What You Need to Know About the Bacteria

Serena Profitt. Photo by AP/Steven and Rachel Profitt

The parents of the 4-year-old girl who died Monday after contracting E. coli are planning to take legal action against an Oregon hospital, Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital in Lincoln City, that allegedly failed to properly diagnose the illness. Following a Labor Day celebration, young Serena Profitt had complained of a fever and stomach cramps, but the hospital had ruled out E. coli without actually testing for it and sent her home, the girl’s aunt, Aleasha Hargitt, told local television station KATU-TV. Serena was later rushed to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, where she suffered a stroke and died from a form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening condition that occurs in 10 percent of those infected with E. coli, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, a 5-year-old friend of Serena’s remains in critical condition with E. coli, and, in an unrelated case, a 3-year-old Washington girl died of the bacterial infection on Sept. 5. 

Since when is this common food-poisoning culprit so deadly? And should parents across the country be alarmed?

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Probably not, say experts. Most strains of E. coli — short for Escherichia coli, a large and diverse group of bacteria — are actually harmless, according to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are six particular strains that are pathogenic (capable of producing disease). People of any age can be infected with E. coli but very young children and the elderly are more likely to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) than others, the CDC notes.

And, while hemolytic uremic syndrome is a serious condition, getting timely and appropriate treatment, which can include options such as fluid replacement and red blood cell transfusions, leads to a full recovery for most people — especially young children. The delay in Proffit’s diagnosis, therefore, could have been a factor in her death.   

According to Dr. Pritish Tosh, an infectious diseases physician and researcher at the Mayo Clinic, “E. coli is an organism that inhabits the gastrointestinal track of humans and animals. Not everyone who is exposed to E. coli will get an infection, and doctors are unable to predict how someone will respond to the bacteria.” Exposure comes from swallowing the bacteria, which travels in the form of tiny, generally invisible, specks of human or animal feces that can travel on anything from cheeses and undercooked meats to contaminated lettuce. 

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It can take three to four days for an individual to show infection symptoms — which can include fever, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, or vomiting, he said. To confirm E. coli has been contracted, a stool sample must be sent to a lab for testing; subsequent treatments are general, basically consisting of hydration, and antibiotics use is not advised.

There are no vaccines or medications that protect individuals from E. coli, Tosh noted, but there are several ways to reduce your chances of being infected:

•Thoroughly wash raw vegetables, cook meat until it’s brown (well-done), and stick to drinking pasteurized milk, juice and cider.

•Washing your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before meals and after changing diapers, using the bathroom or interacting with farm animals. A traveling petting zoo in Minnesota, for example, was the source of an E. coli outbreak in August that infected 13 people, seven of whom had to be admitted to hospitals.

And just how common is it to see deaths from E. coli? According to CDC statistics on foodborne disease outbreaks, the latest of which are from the two-year period of 2009 and 2010, public health departments records show there were 29,444 cases of illness, 1,184 hospitalizations, and 23 deaths. Norovirus, a viral type of food poisoning, was the most common cause, followed by Salmonella, a bacterial food poisoning often contracted by undercooked eggs or poultry. Of the hospitalizations, E. coli was responsible for 16 percent; 22 of the 23 deaths were linked to several types of bacteria, one of which E. coli.

Moral of the story? Don’t panic. Take precautions. And, if you or a loved one does get sick, see a professional right away — and confirm that a test is taken. 

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