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E. coli outbreak strikes St. Louis area

(Via Wikimedia Commons/Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU)
Low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Each individual bacterium is oblong shaped.

Updated October 28, 1:50 p.m. to update information related to St. Louis City. Updated October 28, 12:30 p.m. to add information about the U.S. CDC team.

An E. coli outbreak has sickened at least 21 people in the St. Louis area.

Confirmed cases include 16 in St. Louis County, two in St. Charles County, two in Jefferson County, and one in St. Clair County in Illinois. The Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services is investigating three suspected cases in St. Louis City. At least nine people in St. Louis County have been hospitalized.

The director of the Saint Louis County Department of Health, Dr. Delores Gunn, confirms that the toxic strain of E. coli is being spread through contaminated food, but says her department is still investigating its origin.

“We interview every single person that is confirmed positive to determine what they may have come into contact with, what has been their activities over the last few days, and try to find a common string between them,” Gunn said.

On Friday, a four-person EpiAid team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in St. Louis to assist with the regional outbreak investigation.

Gunn says people should be on the lookout for symptoms.

“Things like bloody diarrhea, any type of watery diarrhea, fever, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps. If you have any of these symptoms, please go to the local emergency room, or get in touch with your primary care provider as soon as possible,” Gunn said.

E. coli strain 0157 does not respond to antibiotics, so patients are being treated for their symptoms and to prevent dehydration.

Gunn says there's no doubt this is major outbreak.

“To put it in perspective, usually when we see E. coli like this, we only see – last year in St. Louis County for example we had 5 cases, and it was spread sporadically over 12 months," Gunn said. "The entire year, we only had five cases. And we’re looking at 16 cases in less than 72 hours.”

The Saint Louis County Department of Health recommends people follow these steps to reduce people's risk of exposure to E. coli:

  • Washing hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing diapers, and before preparing or eating food;
  • Cooking meats thoroughly - for beef and chicken, that means an internal temperature of of at least 160 degrees;
  • Preventing cross contamination when preparing food by thoroughly washing hands, counters, cutting boards and utensils that have touched raw meat.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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