The food borne illness outbreak in northeastern Oklahoma that has sickened more than 115, hospitalized 50 and taken one life is the latest emergence of the virulent and highly toxic E. coli bacterium. Most E. coli outbreaks in North America are subtypes of E. coli O157:H7, but the CDC has just revealed that this outbreak is a rare serotype: E. coli O111.

“This is highly unusual,” said food borne illness attorney William Marler. “We have been involved in every major US outbreak in the last 15 years, and we have only seen this serotype twice before—once traced to apple cider in New York, and once connected to water or salad in Texas.”

Although many strains of E. coli can be present in the body with no ill effects, strains like E. coli O111 and E. coli O157:H7 produce a deadly shiga toxin (stx) which ravages the digestive system and kidneys. By the time symptoms emerge—abdominal cramping, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea—the bacteria is already entrenched. Although there is no cure or antidote, immediate health care is critical to support the systems under attack, keep the patient hydrated, and try to alleviate the intense pain that accompanies the illness as the body works to rid itself of the toxic bacteria.

In those with compromised or immature immune systems, E. coli can progress to Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, or HUS. Children, whose immune systems are not as developed as adults’, are especially vulnerable. HUS is a cascading complication resulting in kidney failure; at the moment several children in Oklahoma are on dialysis. Even when they are able to recover from the potent E. coli toxin (considered by the CDC to be one of the most toxic substances known to man), victims often have permanent kidney damage. It is not unusual for E coli victims infected as children to need multiple kidney transplants over their lifetime.

“Regardless of the strain of toxic E. coli, it produces a devastating illness.” continued Marler. “Under the best circumstances, it can take months to recover. Some victims are affected for the rest of their lives. We need to support the families going through this nightmare, and do everything we can to help them.”