A rash of children have become sick since early October with an illness that can lead to kidney failure and is usually caused by E. coli infection.
Children’s Hospital has treated seven children since Oct. 8 for hemolytic-uremic syndrome, four of whom have needed dialysis because of kidney problems. Three of the patients have had confirmed E. coli infections, and the bacteria is by far the most likely culprit in the other cases, said Dr. Mark Benfield, a kidney specialist at Children’s.
The hospital usually treats five to 10 cases of HUS a year, Benfield said. Four of the patients are still at Children’s. All seven are expected to make a full recovery, he said.
State and county health department officials are investigating the cases, but so far there’s been no link beyond two brothers who both became ill. The patients are all from outside the Birmingham area, and one is from Mississippi. The Alabama cases are scattered across the state, making a connection in the cases difficult.
Of the seven patients, five had recently eaten hamburgers or ground beef, Benfield said. The doctor said undercooked contaminated ground beef is the most common cause of the E. coli infection that leads to HUS. Of the other two patients, one lives on a farm and the other had eaten at a fast-food restaurant that wasn’t properly preventing cross-contamination between beef and other food, Benfield said.
But Dr. Kirk Avent, medical director of disease control at the Jefferson County Department of Public Health, said people should not assume beef is to blame.
“There has been no meat identified as the source,” Avent said.
Other possible sources of E. coli infection include unpasteurized milk, juice or cider, and fresh fruits and vegetables that have been contaminated by the bacteria. Contact with infected human or animal waste, or food handled by people with the infection, can spread the bacteria.
North Carolina health officials are now investigating at least 12 E. coli cases, many of which may be linked to a petting zoo at the N.C. State Fair.