Food is supposed to give us pleasure, not make us sick. But bacteria and other germs can contaminate food, turning a source of nutrients into a source of illness - or even death.
One type of bacteria that causes many serious illnesses in the United States is E. coli 0157:H7. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 73,000 people in this country are infected with E. coli 0157:H7 each year and more than 60 people die from it.
â€œThis is a very serious bacteria and there is no real treatment,â€ said Dawn Spicer, Infection Control Coordinator for the Barton HealthCare System. The most common way to become infected with E. coli is by eating undercooked ground beef that's been contaminated by the bacteria. People have also become ill from eating contaminated bean sprouts or fresh leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach.
â€œThe spread can be from food prep workers not washing their hands or poor sanitation in farm workers picking produce.â€ Spicer said. â€œHand washing is the one most important thing you can do to protect yourself from E. coli.â€
Other ways you might become infected include drinking unpasteurized milk, juice or apple cider; swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water; or having direct contact with an infected person.
The incubation period is from one to eight days. The first sign that you might be infected with E. coli is severe abdominal cramps. The cramps are typically followed by diarrhea and then bloody diarrhea. See a doctor immediately if you have bloody diarrhea. The only way to diagnose an E. coli infection is with a stool culture. Do not take an over-the-counter medication to stop the diarrhea. The medication will keep your intestines from getting rid of the bacteria.
â€œThe most common complication of an E. coli infection is hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening condition that is usually treated in the intensive care unit of the hospital,â€ Spicer said. Children, in particular, are prone to developing HUS.
â€œThree to five percent of adults develop HUS and 10 percent of children less than 10 years of age develop HUS,â€ she said.
To help prevent E. coli infection, experts advise that you Practice good hand hygiene throughout the day. Wash your hands with soap and warm water as long as it takes you to sing the â€œHappy Birthdayâ€ song twice.
- Cook all ground beef thoroughly. Meat should be cooked until a thermometer registers at least 155 degrees or until the meat is no longer pink. Don't eat undercooked ground beef. If you're served an undercooked product in a restaurant, send it back.
- Don't drink unpasteurized milk, juice and cider.
- Separate raw meat from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters and utensils with hot soapy water after coming in contact with raw meat. Never place cooked meat on the unwashed plate that held raw meat.
- Elderly people and children should not eat alfalfa sprouts.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables just before eating, cutting or cooking. Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables. Scrub firm produce with a produce brush.
- Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after going to the bathroom or changing diapers.
E. coli 0157:H7 is a reportable illness, meaning that any positive tests for the bacteria are reported to Spicer who then reports it to the County Health Department. In eight years, Spicer has only had to report one case in South Lake Tahoe and she'd like to keep it that way. To learn more about E. coli, go to www.cdc.gov