Federal officials report the number of confirmed cases of E. coli O103 infections, suspected to be linked to ground beef, have more than doubled since the outbreak was initially reported.

Since April 5 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed its investigation, the outbreak has grown from 72 patients in five states to 156 patients in 10 states. An update posted yesterday, April 23, reported that of 114 sick people for whom the information is available, 92 of them, or 82 percent, reported eating ground beef before becoming ill.

As of the April 12 outbreak update, only 109 people across five states had been confirmed as infected with the outbreak strain of the pathogen.

“Ill people bought or ate ground beef from several different grocery stores and restaurants. Many ill people bought large trays or chubs of ground beef from grocery stores and used the meat to make dishes like spaghetti sauce and sloppy joe,” according to the update posted by the CDC.

“USDA-FSIS and state regulatory officials are continuing their traceback investigations to determine the source of raw ground beef supplied to grocery stores and restaurants where ill people reported eating. At this time, no common supplier, distributor, or brand of ground beef has been identified.”

Eighteen days into the public discussion of the outbreak, federal officials continue to remind consumers to appropriately cook ground beef to kill E. coli bacteria. Consumers’ responsibility to cook away E. coli is repeatedly referenced, even though federal law prohibits the sale of beef that is contaminated with E. coli. 

The pathogen was declared an “adulterant” after the deadly outbreak traced to undercooked Jack in the Box hamburgers that were made with contaminated meat sold to the fast food chain in 1993. Selling foods that are adulterated is illegal under the federal food code.

Illnesses in the ongoing E. coli O130 outbreak began on March 1, with the most recent confirmed victim having developed symptoms on April 7. Patients range in age from less than 1 year old to 83 years old. 

It can take three weeks or more for confirmed patients to be included in federal outbreak counts because of the lag time between when a person becomes sick and when lab-confirmed test results are logged by the CDC. Therefore, E. coli illnesses in this outbreak that began after March 26 are likely not yet included in the national count

“Of 127 people with information available, 20 (16 percent) have been hospitalized. No deaths and no cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome have been reported,” according to the CDC.

The multistate investigation began March 28 when officials in Kentucky and Georgia notified the CDC of the outbreak. Ground beef was not mentioned in the initial outbreak notice on April 5, nor in the CDC’s April 9 update. Ground beef was identified as a possible source in the CDC’s April 12 outbreak update.

Despite the working theory at CDC and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service that ground beef is the likely source of the outbreak, the CDC is not recommending that consumers avoid eating ground beef at this time. 

“Consumers and restaurants should handle ground beef safely and cook it thoroughly to avoid foodborne illness,” the CDC’s update this week states.

“At this time, CDC is not recommending that retailers stop serving or selling ground beef. This is a rapidly evolving investigation.”

Kentucky, where health officials first detected the outbreak, has been hardest hit so far, with 65 people confirmed infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O103. Next is Tennessee with 41 cases. Georgia comes in at third with 33 cases. Other states with confirmed outbreak patients are Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota Mississippi, Ohio and Virginia.

Information for consumers
Anyone who has eaten ground beef and developed symptoms of E. coli infection should seek medical attention. Patients should tell their doctors about the possible exposure to E. coli bacteria because special laboratory tests are required to diagnose such infections. The symptoms of E. coli infections can mimic other less severe illnesses, sometimes leading to misdiagnosis.

The symptoms of E. coli infections vary for each person but often include severe stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. If there is fever, it is usually less than 101 degrees F. Most people get better within 5 to 7 days. 

Some infections are very mild, but others are severe or even life-threatening. About 5 percent to 10 percent of those who are diagnose develop a type of kidney failure, known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

Symptoms of HUS include fever, abdominal pain, feeling very tired, decreased frequency of urination, small unexplained bruises or bleeding, and pallor. Many people with HUS recover within a few weeks, but some suffer permanent damage or die. People who experience these symptoms should seek emergency medical care immediately. People with HUS should be hospitalized because their kidneys may stop working. They may also develop other serious problems such as hypertension, chronic kidney disease, and neurologic problems.

Also, HUS can occur in people of any age, but is most common in children under 5 years old and older adults. It is marked by easy bruising, pallor, and decreased urine output. Persons who experience these symptoms should seek emergency medical care immediately. E. coli infections are also dangerous for pregnant women and people with suppressed immune systems, such as cancer patients, HIV patients and transplant recipients.

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