The federal disease detectives now tracking bad spinach heard the first alarms on an otherwise quiet Friday, 14 days ago.
Since then, the food-borne illnesses have spread to at least 23 states. Hot on the heels have been scientists and public health officials, who are deploying the microscope, the Internet and an adrenaline-laced intellect familiar to fans of the CSI television franchise.
The McClatchy Tribune reports that Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now have about 80 people devoted to tracking the outbreak of E. coli-related diseases. Some investigators are members of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, working closely with state health departments. Some of their tools were forged in the wake of past E. coli outbreaks.
On September 7, a 77-year-old retired bank clerk from a small Wisconsin town bordering Lake Michigan died from kidney failure attributed to E. coli. Several children had also fallen severely ill in early September, and a total of five adults had been stricken. So September 8, Wisconsin officials signed onto a password-protected federal database called PulseNet and filed reports of what they had.
Coordinated by the CDC, PulseNet is a network that was created after a 1993 E. coli outbreak. It includes a database stocked with some 32,000 images of E. coli samples. An Internet chat room enables officials to share observations.
Several thousand miles away, Oregon officials were sifting through their own evidence. Not yet aware of the Wisconsin cases, Oregon public health officials learned of three E. coli cases shortly after 6 p.m. on September 8.
But by September 12, two more E. coli cases appeared in Oregon. That said Dr. William Keene, Oregon’s senior epidemiologist, "kicked into high gear" the state’s detective efforts. Melissa Plantenga, a special-studies coordinator with the Oregon Department of Human Services, set about calling the five victims with a 400-question survey.
"It’s essentially a laundry list of every food we can imagine," Keene said. "The thing that jumped out at us was that four out of the five said they had eaten bagged spinach."
Plantenga, a 30-year-old researcher who had previously tracked contaminated almonds, then punched "spinach and E. coli" into the Google search engine. Bingo. She found a 2003 case in which 13 residents of Sequoias Retirement Village in California’s Portola Valley were sickened after eating raw spinach.
State and private-public health labs handle the hands-on scientific work. They pick through the bloody stools of patients in search of what’s formally called Escherichia coli 0157:H7. The numbers help catalog the bacteria, which are barely 2 microns long. That’s tiny. The period at the end of this sentence may be about 615 microns wide.