Asjylyn Loder of the St. Petersburgh Time reported today in her story “String of area E. coli cases stirs concern” about our clients’ the Lapis and the family’s struggle to fid the source of their twins E. coli-related illness.

When Kim Lapi’s 9-year-old twins were hospitalized with E. coli in early November, state health officials told her there were no other cases in Florida. Her children weren’t part of an outbreak, they assured her.

Then Lapi met Tampa mom Bonnie Villella, whose 14-year-old daughter had near-fatal complications of E. coli in the hospital room next door. Then she found Christil Perez in Pasco County, whose 4-year-old son also had the dangerous infection in mid October. Finally, health officials told Lapi last week of a case that matched her twins: a 20-year-old man in Lake County, who went to an emergency room on Oct. 30.

“We don’t notify the public on sporadic cases, single cases, of any disease unless there’s a public health threat,” said Roberta Hammond, food and waterborne disease coordinator for the Florida Department of Health.

But the three moms said the department failed to investigate aggressively enough, especially in light of recent outbreaks throughout the country. Their stories highlight the frustration of parents trying to protect their children from a harrowing disease, and the difficulties faced by “disease detectives” trying to protect the public.

Unfortunately, this failure on the part of health departments generally and Florida specifically, are far too common according to a report by Thomas Hargrove of the Scripps Howard News Service entitled “States fail to identify food-borne illnesses.”

Scripps studied 6,374 food-related disease outbreaks reported by every state to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2004. The causes of nearly two-thirds of the outbreaks in that period were officially listed as “unknown.”

The findings translate into an alarming potential for tragedy. If health officials are unable to connect illness to food, victims who might eat from the same poisoned source cannot be warned. If food is known as the culprit, but the specific disease lurking within is not diagnosed, the victims may get even sicker or die without proper treatment.

In Alabama, Florida and New Jersey, the cause of food poisoning is almost never found, even when it is known that dozens or hundreds of people became violently ill or died from something they ate, according to the Scripps study.

During the five-year period studied, Florida reported only seven people sickened by E. coli outbreaks, a suspiciously low number for a state of its size. Nationwide, at least 3,349 people contracted E. coli in food-poisoning outbreaks.

To keep things in perspective – we (Florida) have much work to do.  Every year, an estimated 5,000 Americans die from food-based diseases like Salmonella, E. coli, Shigellosis and Campylobacter. Another 325,000 people are hospitalized. The CDC estimates that food-based sickness probably afflicts 76 million Americans annually.