An estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 60 deaths occur in the United States each year due to E. coli infection. Consumers can help prevent E. coli O157:H7 infection if they understand the risks and know what precautions to take. Here is some information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
What is Escherichia coli O157:H7?
E. coli O157:H7 is one of hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli. Although most strains are harmless and live in the intestines of healthy humans and animals, this strain produces a toxin and can cause severe illness.
How is E. coli O157:H7 spread?
The organism can be found on a small number of cattle farms and can live in the intestines of healthy cattle. Meat can become contaminated during slaughter, and organisms can be thoroughly mixed into beef when it is ground. Eating meat, especially ground beef, that has not been cooked sufficiently to kill E. coli O157:H7 can cause infection. Contaminated meat looks and smells normal. Among other known sources of infection are consuming sprouts, lettuce, salami, unpasteurized milk and juice, and swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water.
What illness does E. coli O157:H7 cause?
E. coli O157:H7 infection often causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps; sometimes the infection causes nonbloody diarrhea or no symptoms. Usually little or no fever is present, and the illness resolves in 5 to 10 days. In some people, particularly children younger than 5 and the elderly, the infection can cause a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which red blood cells are destroyed and kidneys fail.
What are the long-term consequences of infection?
People who have only diarrhea usually recover completely. About one-third of people with hemolytic uremic syndrome have abnormal kidney function years later, and a few require long-term dialysis. An additional 8 percent of people with hemolytic uremic syndrome have lifelong complications, such as high blood pressure, seizures or paralysis.
What can be done to prevent the infection?
Cook ground beef until a meat thermometer hits at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid eating ground-beef patties that are still pink in the middle. Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters and utensils with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat. After contact with animals, especially farm animals, wash your hands often and make sure your children do the same.
Make sure that people with diarrhea, especially children, wash their hands carefully with soap after bowel movements and that people wash hands after changing soiled diapers. Anyone with a diarrheal illness should avoid swimming in public pools or lakes, sharing baths with others and preparing food for others.