Two young Washington state girls are hospitalized with complications from E. coli infection and their school has been temporarily closed for cleaning. One of the girls has reportedly developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious kidney condition linked to E. coli infection. Health officials said the source of their exposure to Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) bacteria was probably not food but contact with animals.
Contact with livestock can be a source of E. coli infection. (Photo illustration)
“The exact source of contamination in E. coli can be very difficult to identify, but at this point we believe the children were likely exposed to livestock near their home,” said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer and director of the Snohomish Health District. A health district Facebook posting indicated that, “… based on our Communicable Disease team’s initial investigation and interviews with family, we do not believe this was caused by a food source.” The Monroe Montessori School in Monroe, WA, was temporarily closed on Wednesday, and nobody answered the phone there on Thursday. Approximately 60 students and staff members were said to have potentially been exposed to the bacteria and were being tested for the infection. A health district statement issued Wednesday noted that the school “has temporarily closed for disinfecting as a precaution,” and that the school, the district, the Washington State Department of Health and the Washington State Department of Early Learning were coordinating on the E. coli testing. Contact with livestock in a rural area, a farm, or a petting zoo are common sources of E. coli bacteria. An outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infection last year in Washington state was traced to a fairgrounds dairy barn in Lynden, WA. That outbreak sickened 25 people, mostly young children, and hospitalized 10 of them. Symptoms of STEC infections vary for each person but often include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea that is often bloody, and vomiting. If there is fever, it usually is less than 101 degrees F. Most people get better within five to seven days as infections can be mild, but others can be severe or even life-threatening. Young children and the elderly are more likely to experience serious illness. People with weakened immune systems, including pregnant women, are also at risk for serious illness.

Between 5 and 10 percent of those diagnosed with E. coli O157 infection develop the potentially life-threatening complication of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Clues that a person is developing HUS include decreased frequency of urination, feeling very tired, and losing pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids.

People with HUS should be hospitalized because their kidneys may stop working and they may develop other serious problems. Most people who develop HUS recover within a few weeks, but some suffer permanent damage or die.

Handwashing is the most effective way to reduce chances of getting sick. Adults should supervise young children to make sure they don’t put their hands in their mouths and make sure that their hands are washed thoroughly, especially after using the bathroom.

The spread of illnesses from animals, such as those caused by E. coli, are commonly linked to hand-to-mouth contact. It is also important to avoid swallowing water when swimming and playing in lakes, ponds, streams, swimming pools, and backyard “kiddie” pools.

More information about STEC and other types of E. coli can be found here.

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