What is E. coli? How do you prevent it?

Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2000

An outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 has struck the central Kenai Peninsula. Five cases have been confirmed; another five are suspected. The symptoms of infection by this bacteria include:

n Diarrhea, sometimes progressing to bloody diarrhea;

n Severe abdominal pain;

n Fever in one-third of cases.

The incubation period between infection and onset of symptoms can range from 2-8 days, but typically crop up in 3-4 days.

Transmission occurs mainly from eating contaminated foods, especially ground beef, fruits and vegetables including sprouts and lettuce, as well as salami and unpasteurized milk and juice.

Transmission also occurs directly from person to person in families, child care centers and custodial institutions such as nursing homes.

Ways to prevent infection from E. coli include:

n Cook food thoroughly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., ground beef can turn brown before the disease-causing bacteria are killed. The CDC recommends using a digital meat thermometer to ensure thorough cooking. The temperature at the center of the thickest part of the hamburger patty should read at least 160 degrees. People without a thermometer can reduce their chance of infection by cooking hamburger patties until there is no more pink in the middle. Be sure to wash meat thermometers between tests in hot soapy water;

n If served an under-cooked hamburger at a restaurant, send it back for further cooking. Ask for a new bun and clean plate, as well.

n Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods. Wash hands, counters and utensils with hot soapy water after they touch raw meat. Never put cooked hamburgers on an unwashed plate that once held uncooked meat.

n Drink only pasteurized milk, juice and cider.

n Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, especially those that will not be cooked. Children under 5, people who have compromised immune systems, and the elderly should not eat alfalfa sprouts.

n Drink municipal water that has been treated with chlorine or other disinfectants.

n Avoid swallowing lake or pool water while swimming.

n Make sure people with diarrhea, especially children, wash their hands carefully with soap after bowel movements to reduce the risk of spreading infection. People changing diapers should take the same precaution. People with diarrhea should avoid swimming in public pools or lakes, sharing baths, and preparing food for others.

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