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Mystery Outbreak Hits Block in WI Town

Parents of four Wisconsin children who’ve been fighting bacterial diseases since December want somebody to solve what some there are calling the Grand Avenue mystery.

The four children live side-by-side and kitty corner from one another in a one-block area of Grand Avenue in the Village of Belgium located about 40 miles north of Milwaukee.  The tiny town of about 2,000 is set back about two miles from Lake Michigan.

“If they are all related, you’d think somebody would want to find that out, wouldn’t you?” asked Emily Golden, mother of Chris Golden, who is recovering at home from infections of both cryptosporidium and clostridium difficile (C. diff).  He began showing symptoms on Jan. 8.

Chris, however, did not test positive for E. coli.  Other other children on the block did; since Dec. 12, the Ozaukee County Health Department has confirmed that two children tested positive for E. coli, and says the third is a “probable” case.

Four-year-old Tyson Becker was infected with E. coli and developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS).  He was at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee from Dec. 17 to Jan. 5.  While hospitalized, his kidneys shut down and he required three surgeries, two blood transfusions, and kidney dialysis.

“Once you’ve gone through it, you don’t want to see any other kid get it,” says Cara Becker, Tyson’s mom.

The two other E. coli victims came down with their infections one month apart from one another.  One of those two was hospitalized.

With the block’s stricken children ranging from age 2 to 8, they have little contact with one another, and the outdoors are frozen and covered in Wisconsin’s famous ice and snow.  The town has tested its water and says the results were all clean.

The block’s illnesses are being investigated by the Ozaukee County Health Department, which is getting help from the state.  But having an assortment of bacterial infections hit four children in one block is leaving parents feeling very uneasy.

“We’ve been told it may be something in the environment,” says Cara Becker.  But she, like others in the neighborhood, would like more effort put forward to solve the mystery.

While parents in the neighborhood worry about their kids getting sick, one expert on these bacterial illnesses says the danger may have passed.

“The silver lining appears to be that there’s not a persisting source of infection, otherwise additional people would continue to fall ill, says Seattle attorney Drew Falkenstein.  “But that’s cold comfort to the mother of a young child hospitalized with HUS.”

Falkenstein, who has been involved in E. coli O157:H7 litigation on behalf of victims in Wisconsin, says the state’s surveillance, microbiological, and sanitation personnel have the talent to solve the mystery, if it can be done.

“Public health looks to be taking all the right steps in trying to find a source for these illnesses.  That will obviously be important, if only for peace of mind, for the folks who live in that area of town,” he says.
 
Bill Marler, who works with Falkenstein, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should also be involved.

“There are 73,000 E. coli O157:H7 cases yearly, with thousands hospitalized.  Nearly 100, mostly children, die.  In many cases a source is not determined,” Marler, says.  “Here, however, with these kids being sick in the same area in same time frame, a source should be found.  Hopefully PulseNet, the CDC’s genetic database of E. coli bacteria, is involved.”

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