SLO County probes E. coli outbreak

Latest report brings total identified cases to four since July 31, when two became ill in the North County

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comAugust 18, 2013 

An investigation into how a small but dangerous outbreak of E. coli sickness that began in the North County on July 31 is still underway.

E. coli bacteria can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Four cases have been identified — one more case since The Tribune previously reported the outbreak Aug. 3. All have been confirmed as being a dangerous strain of the bacteria called E. coli 157, according to Christine Gaiger, a communicable disease program manager with San Luis Obispo County Public Health Services.

“E. coli can be life-threatening, but not always,” Gaiger said. “None of these were.”

The health department is researching where those affected came in contact with the strain — and to see whether they got it from the same source.

“We think it’s from the same source, but we’re still waiting to see,” Gaiger said.

Two cases were reported July 31, a third Aug.1, and the most recent Aug. 6. Two cases were reported by local hospitals after admitting patients, and two cases, including the most recent, were reported by local emergency rooms where the ill sought care. The county health department declined to disclose the names of the hospitals or those who fell sick.

Three of the cases were reported from the North County, while the fourth and newest case came from elsewhere in the county; officials declined to disclose where.

Isolated cases of E. coli sickness are common yearround, but county health officials say the current batch of cases is odd because they occurred so close together.

While the identities of the sick have not been released other than to say they’re not all children, The Tribune learned independently that one of the people hospitalized was a 12-year-old girl from the Creston 4-H Club who showed a dair y goat during the California Mid-State Fair. Friends on Friday said she was out of the hospital and had improved.

The health department declined to disclose whether the fair is being investigated as a possible point of origin.

The E. coli samples, taken from patients’ feces, are sent from hospitals or outpatient labs to the county health department, and then sent to the state public health lab.

Studying each sample can take weeks.

“When the samples go to the lab, you have to get a culture. So basically, you have to grow E. coli,” said Michelle Shoresman, county Public Health Services’ emergency preparedness program manager. “With something like this, you don’t just run it through a machine. It does take some time.”

After the cultures are grown and the samples tested to determine their strain, an epidemiologist at the county Public Health Department works through several scenarios on what the cases have in common. Much of that process involves what the patients recall about places they went or foods they ate.

The epidemiologist would ask questions such as: “Did they live with animals? Did they eat bagged produce? Did they eat sprouts? It goes to that level,” Gaiger said. “The case report is pretty intense on the possible exposure.”

Officials expect to have a probable origin by the end of the month.

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