This spring, the European Union saw one of the deadliest outbreaks of food poisoning ever recorded. The culprit, a new strain of E. coli, confounded doctors and investigators with its surprising virulence and resistance to antibiotics. Even months later, its affects are still being tabulated, with the World Health Organization to date citing over 50 fatalities and over 4,000 sickened. The food-borne illness largely struck residents of Germany, but its victims include citizens from fourteen other countries in the EU, Canada and the United States. Most recently, the death of a 65-year old man resident of Arizona was confirmed as being the first American fatality as a result of the outbreak.
As the number of victims began mounting, doctors and scientists realized what they were witnessing was different from “normal” E. coli outbreaks. E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a bacteria found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals. While this bacterium is usually harmless, some strains can cause illness among humans who have contact with E. coli, such as through the consumption of infected meat or produce tainted by bacteria-laced fertilizer or water. Similarly, the outbreak in Europe has been possibly linked to the consumption of E. coli-contaminated sprouts, just as a deadly 2006 outbreak in the U.S. was caused by infected spinach. What troubled investigators about this outbreak, however, was the realization that this particular strain appeared to be approximately three times stronger, or more virulent, than typical illness-causing E. coli strains. Before long, this form of the bacteria was recognized as an entirely new, and more dangerous, strain of E. coli.
This newest strain, called O104:H4, is more toxic, easier to transmit, and more resistant to treatment than past varieties. It has a stronger ability to attach to cells in the intestines, causing dangerous bloody diarrhea, and includes a type of toxin more likely to cause kidney failure. It has also proven to be resistant to over a dozen types of antibiotics, including penicillin and cephalosporin.
While the reports of illness related to this outbreak have slowed, this bacteria’s ability to change and strengthen has proven that this will not be the last report of E. coli-related illness. Unfortunately, even stringent health and production standards for producers and businesses have failed to entirely eliminate outbreaks. Though wide-sweeping epidemics are more rare, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that around 10,000-20,000 people in the United States are infected by E. coli each year. Even informed consumers who practice good hygiene and proper handling of food are not able to entirely prevent infection by E. coli. However, those businesses or producers who fail to prevent E. coli in their product can possibly be held liable. A person who suspects they are the victim of any food-borne illness should contact their physician and local health department immediately. Reporting not only can slow or prevent a potentially more serious outbreak, it creates an official record of the event which an Illinois personal injury attorney can use to assist a victim in receiving compensation for medical expenses and injuries. Additionally, reporting allows businesses to be held accountable, serving as an example to others to improve safety standards and better safe-guard consumer health.
About the Author: Brooke Haley marketing associate at Millon & Peskin, Chicago workers compensation lawyer that practice in the areas of Civil Litigation, Workers’ Compensation, and Personal Injury. Millon & Peskin is a General Civil Litigation Practice with the goal of representing the interests of injured workers, throughout all applicable Courts within the State of Illinois. For more information, please visit http://www.millonpeskin.com.