Acodrding to Food Safety News – Amarillo, TX and Tulsa, OK are connected by 400 miles of freeway, Interstates 40 and 44, and now they share investigations of small clusters of E. coli O157:H7 infection involving children.

On Wednesday, Amarillo health officials said they were investigating seven confirmed cases of O157 infection, all involving children. Thursday, the Tulsa Health Department announced it was investigating four cases of E. coli illness also associated with local children.

Tulsa officials said two cases have been laboratory-confirmed, with two additional cases suspected. The two confirmed cases are siblings and both have been hospitalized.

One of the children whose infection has been confirmed and the two whose illnesses are suspected to be caused by E. coli attend Boston Avenue Church’s childcare center. Parents of children who attend the childcare center have been notified of the cases and are being informed about symptoms to watch for, as well as hygiene precautions.

“Boston Avenue Church’s childcare center has been very cooperative with the Tulsa Health Department investigative team. The source of E. coli infection can be challenging to confirm. With three of the cases tied to one location, we will continue working closely with the childcare center, however, we are in the early stages of the investigation and cannot say with certainty that this is the source.” stated Tulsa Health Department director Dr. Bruce Dart.

Tulsa officials stressed that at this time, there are no indications that these E. coli clusters are related to the outbreak of E. coli 0104 in Germany. That outbreak has resulted in at least 20 deaths in multiple European countries.

As of June 1, 2011, no confirmed cases of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) 0104 infections had been reported in the United States. STEC 0104 is very rare.

Symptoms of E. coli can range from mild to severe, and include: diarrhea (often bloody), severe stomach cramps, and vomiting. If there is a fever it is usually not very high (less than 101˚ F). Most people get better within 5-7 days. The time between exposure and feeling sick is usually 3-4 days, but may be as short as 1 day or as long as 10 days. The symptoms often begin slowly with mild belly pain or non-bloody diarrhea that worsens over several days.

E. coli are bacteria commonly found in the digestive tracts of humans and animals, where they make up part of the normal bacteria of the intestine. Though most are harmless, some E. coli bacteria can cause serious human disease. Some kinds of E. coli make a toxin called Shiga toxin. The bacteria that make these toxins are called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) or enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC).

The most commonly identified STEC in the United States is E. coli 0157:H7. About 5-10 percent of those who are diagnosed with STEC infection develop a potentially life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a condition in which red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail.

E. coli can be spread through consumption of undercooked meat, particularly beef, drinking contaminated raw milk, swimming in, or drinking contaminated water, or by consuming foods or mouthing objects that have been contaminated with feces of an infected person or animal. Person-to-person transmission can occur if infected people do not wash their hands after using the toilet or after changing diapers.

The following precautions can be taken to prevent E. coli:

Always refrigerate meat products. DO NOT leave them at room temperature.

Cook ground meat completely to an internal temperature of 160˚ F.

Clean thoroughly with bleach any surface meat has touched.

Avoid drinking unpasteurized products, such as milk and juices.

Wash hands with soap and water before and after preparing food.

Teach children how to wash hands properly.