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Jackson County investigates source of 16 E. coli cases

[Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta]
12 people here have been hospitalized by unrecognized strain

Local and state health officials are working to determine the source of a bacterial outbreak that has sent a dozen people in Southern Oregon to the hospital.

There have been 16 cases of E. coli bacteria producing the Shiga toxin in Jackson County since Aug. 8, according to a news release issued Monday by Jackson County Health and Human Services. Twelve of those bacterial infections led to hospitalizations.

Jackson County Public Health does not yet know where the infections came from, according to Jackson County Medical Director Dr. Jim Shames.

“Right now, we do not have a definitive hypothesis on what the source of infection may be,” Shames stated in the release. “The genome sequencing, performed at the state public health lab, has not matched any other cases in the state or nationally.”

To help identify a possible source of the infection, public health workers are conducting “in-depth interviews” with patients searching for common threads.

E. coli bacteria typically live in human and animal intestines. Although most E. coli strains are part of a healthy person’s digestive system, some strains can be pathogenic, causing diarrhea or other stomach-related illnesses, according to public health officials.

Pathogenic E. coli are often transmitted through contaminated water, contaminated food or through contact with infected animals or people.

The symptoms typically develop within three or four days of eating or drinking something containing the bacteria, but the illness can develop at any time between one and 10 days after exposure.

Symptoms of the Shiga toxin producing strain of E. coli vary from person to person, but often include severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea, vomiting and a low-grade fever. The symptoms usually last five to seven days.

“Some infections are very mild, but others are severe or even life threatening,” the release stated.

Health officials recommend contacting a health care provider if the patient has diarrhea lasting for more than three days, diarrhea accompanied by a fever higher than 102 degrees, bloody diarrhea or vomiting so much that the person cannot keep liquids down.

To avoid infections, health officials recommend “good overall hygiene” and paying special attention to good handwashing, washing hands after touching animals or environments, cooking meats thoroughly, preventing raw meat from coming into contact with other foods and avoiding consumption of raw and unpasteurized dairy or juice products.

Those feeling ill should avoid school, child care, patient care or food handling environments.

“People with diarrhea should not go to school or child care, handle food or care for patients,” the release said.

About 5% to 10% of patients diagnosed with a Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infection develop a potentially life-threatening kidney condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. Most people with HUS recover after hospitalization within a few weeks, but some can suffer permanent kidney damage or even die from the condition.

The syndrome presents itself about seven days after the E. coli symptoms appear, and while the diarrhea symptoms are improving.

“Clues that someone is developing HUS include decreased frequency of urination, feeling very tired and losing pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids,“ according to Jackson County Public Health.