Parent panic… E. Coli 0157

Forget swine flu, this months panic is now firmly on E. Coli 0157.

By Saturday 19 September, the number of cases of the E. Coli 0157 outbreak linked to Godstone Farm in Surrey had grown to 57.

Ten children are currently being treated in hospital and their condition is being described as stable and improving.

There are currently four farms in the UK shut due to the E. Coli outbreak:

Godstone Farm in Surrey, where the initial outbreak started and its sister farm Horton Park Children’s Farm.

Though no cases have so far been linked to the second farm, it has been closed after inspections by Epsom and Ewell Borough Council’s Environmental Health Department at the Health Protection Agency’s request. Hygiene was found to be unsatisfactory.

White Post Farm in Nottinghamshire has closed as a precautionary measure.

As has the World of Country Life Farm in Exmouth.

So what is E. coli?

There are different types of E.coli, some live harmlessly in the intestine, but others cause a variety of problems.

Vero cytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli (VTEC) is a problem version. The E. coli 0157 strain is the most common problem strain in the UK.

The strain can be found in the intestine of healthy cows, sheep and goats. It becomes a problem when humans consume food or water that has been contaminated by the faeces from infected animals.

Infection may also result from contact with animals carrying E. coli 0157 or from being in an environment contaminated with animal faeces and exposed to the public – such as farms.


Do I need to panic?

It only takes a very small dose of E. coli 0157 to become infected. Once infected, it can quickly pass between families and staff and children at day nurseries.

Usually, E. coli 0157 will cause diarrhoea which may contain blood. This usually settles within a week without treatment, but occasionally serious complications may occur.

The disease can be fatal for certain groups, particularly babies, young children and the elderly.

Children, may develop a life-threatening condition called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS). This can result in kidney failure. HUS develops between 2 and 14 days after the initial onset of diarrhoea. The complication affects around 2-7 per cent of E. coli O157 cases.

Young children are at a higher risk because they are in the age group that is hardest to keep good hand hygiene and their immune systems are still developing.

So far, the Health Protection Agency is advising young children to be supervised whilst hand washing, especially after handling animals or being in their surroundings such as on farm visits.

How to prevent it.

People can be infected with E. coli by:

Eating contaminated food

Contact with infected animals, by touching them or their faeces at farms or campsites

Contact with other people who have had the illness

Playing or drinking contaminated water such as in ponds or streams

Good hand hygiene is key to preventing infection and spread. Parents and carers need to make sure young children wash hands before eating, after using the toilet and particularly after petting animals at a farm.

Cook all meat products thoroughly, especially minced meat, burgers and meat ball products.

Make sure your fridge is below 5 degrees Celsius. Bacteria grows much faster at higher temperatures.

Make sure you organise fridges so that raw meat is at the bottom and unable to drip onto other food products.

Wash all salad and vegetables that will eaten raw

Avoid unpasteurised dairy products

Don’t swim in water with nearby cattle and sheep in fields

Maintain good hand hygiene in you and your children

If someone in your family gets the infection, make sure all their dirty clothes and linen is washed on the hottest washing machine cycle.

Disinfect bathrooms and household areas

How can I tell if I have been infected?

Symptoms of E. coli 0157 infection are:

Diarrhoea which may have blood

Stomach cramps

Fever

Symptoms of haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS)
:

Weakness

Lethargy

Tiredness

Irritability

Small bruises not related to bumps or knocks

HUS most commonly develops in the under 5s and over 65s. Because the symptoms are similar to other medical problems, a diagnosis from the GP is important. If you have a young child with symptoms, especially one who has recently visited a farm or been in close contact with others with the infection, do put two and two together and tell this to your GP. When these complications develop the patient will need to be admitted to hospital, so never put up with a shoddy diagnosis if your instincts tell you your child really is ill.

When a diagnosis of the infection is made, you will be contacted by your local Environment Health Team, as they will need to investigate the possible cause of infection. This will help them locate the source of infection and stop its spread.

Treatment

There is no treatment for the infection and it will usually clear up itself within a week. During this time, it is important to drink plenty of fluids and if diarrhoea is severe a rehydration solution may be advised.  Frequent sips of fluid will help with this but avoid tea, coffee, fizzy drinks and alcohol. Paracetamol is usually good enough for any pain.