Escherichia coli (E. coli) are members of a large group of bacterial germs that inhabit the intestinal tract of humans and other warm-blooded animals (mammals, birds). Newborns have a sterile alimentary tract, which within two days becomes colonized with E. coli.

More than 700 serotypes of E. coli have been identified. Their “O” and “H” antigens on their bodies and flagella distinguish the different E. coli serotypes, respectively. The E. coli serotypes that are responsible for the numerous reports of contaminated foods and beverages are those that produce Shiga toxin (Stx), so called because the toxin is virtually identical to that produced by another bacteria known as Shigella dysenteria type 1 (that also causes bloody diarrhea and hemolytic uremic syndrome [HUS] in emerging countries like Bangladesh) (Griffin & Tauxe, 1991, p. 60, 73). The best-known and most notorious Stx-producing E. coli is E. coli O157:H7. It is important to remember that most kinds of E. coli bacteria do not cause disease in humans, indeed, some are beneficial, and some cause infections other than gastrointestinal infections, such urinary tract infections. This section deals specifically with Stx-producing E. coli, including specifically E. coli O157:H7.

Shiga toxin is one of the most potent toxins known to man, so much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists it as a potential bioterrorist agent (CDC, n.d.). It seems likely that DNA from Shiga toxin-producing Shigella bacteria was transferred by a bacteriophage (a virus that infects bacteria) to otherwise harmless E. coli bacteria, thereby providing them with the genetic material to produce Shiga toxin.

Although E. coli O157:H7 is responsible for the majority of human illnesses attributed to E. coli, there are additional Stx-producing E. coli (e.g., E. coli O121:H19) that can also cause hemorrhagic colitis and post-diarrheal hemolytic uremic syndrome (D+HUS). HUS is a syndrome that is defined by the trilogy of hemolytic anemia (destruction of red blood cells), thrombocytopenia (low platelet count), and acute kidney failure.

Stx-producing E. coli organisms have several characteristics that make them so dangerous. They are hardy organisms that can survive several weeks on surfaces such as counter tops, and up to a year in some materials like compost. They have a very low infectious dose meaning that only a relatively small number of bacteria (< 50) are needed “to set-up housekeeping” in a victim’s intestinal tract and cause infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that every year at least 2000 Americans are hospitalized, and about 60 die as a direct result of E. coli infections and its complications. A recent study estimated the annual cost of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses to be $405 million (in 2003 dollars), which included $370 million for premature deaths, $30 million for medical care, and $5 million for lost productivity (Frenzen, Drake, and Angulo, 2005).

E. coli —a foodborne pathogen

Continue Reading E. coli bacteria: what are they, where did they come from, and why are some so dangerous?

e-coli-small.jpegE. coli O157:H7 was identified for the first time at the CDC in 1975, but it was not until seven years later, in 1982, that E. coli O157:H7 was conclusively determined to be a cause of enteric disease. Following outbreaks of foodborne illness that involved several cases of bloody diarrhea, E. coli O157:H7 was firmly associated with hemorrhagic colitis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated in 1999 that 73,000 cases of E. coli O157:H7 occur each year in the United States. Approximately 2,000 people are hospitalized, and 60 people die as a direct result of E. coli O157:H7 infections and complications. The majority of infections are thought to be foodborne-related, although E. coli O157:H7 accounts for less than 1% of all foodborne illness.  The CDC also estimates that non-O157 STECs (like O26, O45, 0103, O111, O121, and O145) cause another 36,700 illnesses, 1,100 hospitalizations and 30 deaths in America each year.  E. coli is the leading cause of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS).

While the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with E. coli O157:H7 have involved ground beef, such outbreaks have also involved unpasteurized apple and orange juice, unpasteurized milk, alfalfa sprouts, lettuce, spinach and water. An outbreak can also be caused by person-to-person transmission of the bacteria in homes and in settings like daycare centers, hospitals, and nursing homes. We have been involved in representing families of children who have suffered from this bacterium in the following cases:

Continue Reading E. coli Outbreak Litigation – $500,000,000 Recovered in 18 Years

E. coli O157:H7.jpgE. coli O157:H7 was identified for the first time at the CDC in 1975, but it was not until seven years later, in 1982, that E. coli O157:H7 was conclusively determined to be a cause of enteric disease. Following outbreaks of foodborne illness that involved several cases of bloody diarrhea, E. coli O157:H7 was firmly associated with hemorrhagic colitis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated in 1999 that 73,000 cases of E. coli O157:H7 occur each year in the United States. Approximately 2,000 people are hospitalized, and 60 people die as a direct result of E. coli O157:H7 infections and complications. The majority of infections are thought to be foodborne-related, although E.coli O157:H7 accounts for less than 1% of all foodborne illness.

E. coli O157:H7 bacteria are believed to mostly live in the intestines of cattle but have also been found in the intestines of chickens, deer, sheep, goats, and pigs. E. coli O157:H7 does not make the animals that carry it ill; the animals are merely the reservoir for the bacteria.

While the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks associated with E. coli O157:H7 have involved ground beef, such outbreaks have also involved unpasteurized apple and orange juice, unpasteurized milk, alfalfa sprouts, and water. An outbreak can also be caused by person-to-person transmission of the bacteria in homes and in settings like daycare centers, hospitals, and nursing homes.

Continue Reading E. coli O157:H7