Public health officials in Eastern Iowa are investigating a cluster of E. Coli infections that has hospitalized at least three children with a severe type of kidney failure known as HUS.

Investigators have not identified a source, but they have begun traceback efforts in hopes of finding a common denominator among the children, according to multiple local media reports. Jackson County, IA, health officials did not respond to a request for comment from Food Safety News.

None of the media reports indicate whether there are other confirmed patients in addition to those three hospitalized because of hemolytic uremic syndrome ( HUS).

Pediatric epidemiologist Dr. Melanie Wellington is an infectious-disease specialist at University of Iowa Health Care, where the children are hospitalized. She told the Telegraph Herald newspaper she could not share specifics related to the Maquoketa, IA, children or their illnesses.

She recommends that individuals cooperate with local health department contact tracing to help health officials limit exposure. People can become infected with pathogenic strains of E. Coli by consuming contaminated food, unpasteurized dairy products, infected water or contact with cattle or the feces of infected people. 

Only microscopic amounts of the bacteria are needed to cause serious infections, which are sometimes fatal. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates between 5 percent and 10 percent of patients infected with E. coli develop HUS.

About E. coli infections

Anyone who has developed symptoms of E. coli infection recently should seek medical attention and tell their doctor about their possible exposure to the bacteria. Specific tests are required to diagnose the infections, which can mimic other illnesses.

The symptoms of E. coli infections vary for each person but often include severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, which is often bloody. Some patients may also have a fever. Most patients recover within five to seven days. Others can develop severe or life-threatening symptoms and complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

About 5 percent to 10 percent of those diagnosed with E. coli infections develop a potentially life-threatening kidney failure complication, known as a 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 injuries or death. This condition can occur among people of any age but is most common in children younger than five years old because of their immature immune systems, older adults because of deteriorating immune systems, and people with compromised immune systems such as cancer patients.

People who experience HUS symptoms should immediately seek emergency medical care. People with HUS will likely be hospitalized because the condition can cause other serious and ongoing problems such as hypertension, chronic kidney disease, brain damage, and neurologic problems.