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Foodborne Diseases

Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli Infection

Escherichia coli, commonly called E. coli, is just one of many bacteria that can cause diarrhea. While harmless strains of E. coli normally occur widely in nature, including the intestinal tracts of humans and other vertebrates, pathogenic types are a frequent cause of both enteric and urogenital tract infections. Several different types of pathogenic E. coli are capable of causing diarrheal disease. A particularly dangerous type is referred to as enterohemorrhagic E. coli, or EHEC. The first such strain was identified in the United States in 1982. Since then, EHEC strains have been associated with foodborne outbreaks traced to undercooked hamburgers, unpasteurized apple juice or cider, salad, salami, and unpasteurized milk. The strain of EHEC most commonly found in the United States is designated O157:H7; but others, including O26:H11 and O111:H8, also have been found. EHEC strains produce toxins that have effects similar to those produced by bacteria of the Shigella genus. These enterotoxins can damage the lining of the intestine, cause anemia, stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea, and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) leading to kidney failure. In North America, HUS is the most common cause of acute kidney failure in children.

Cattle are known to be a reservoir of EHEC, but other domestic and wild animals and birds can also harbor these bacteria. EHEC and its toxins are destroyed by heating; therefore, the best assurance against infection is eating only thoroughly cooked beef and beef products, avoiding unpasteurized juices, and thoroughly washing uncooked fresh foods. Good personal hygiene, including hand washing, and disinfecting work surfaces in the kitchen also are essential to prevent infection or the spread of this and other enteric diseases.

References and Sources: Medline, Pubmed, National Institutes of Health.

last update: November 2008

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this material to diagnose or treat a health condition or disease without consulting with your healthcare provider.
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