The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is raising alarm over what it describes as a “fast-moving” outbreak of Escherichia coli bacteria. At least 29 people in Michigan and Ohio have been sickened by the same strain, while nine have been hospitalized, but more cases may emerge. A clear cause for the foodborne outbreak has not been identified.
According to the CDC’s notice released Wednesday, the first known cases currently date back to late July, while the latest cases were reported in early August. Fourteen cases have been identified in Ohio and 15 in Michigan. And patients have ranged in age from 6 to 91. Despite the hospitalizations, no deaths have been reported so far.
Much of the current information on the outbreak comes from the CDC’s PulseNet, a surveillance network where select public health labs collect and share genetic data from documented infections commonly known to cause outbreaks, such as E. coli. This network allows scientists to quickly identify clusters of illness caused by the same strain of germ, but the data may not represent the entire scope of an outbreak. The CDC reports that both Michigan and Ohio have identified a larger-than-usual number of E. coli cases lately, but that not all of these cases have been submitted through PulseNet yet. As such, it’s likely that more sickened people will be found, and it’s also possible that the outbreak may not be limited to these two states.
The type of E. coli identified in this outbreak is known as E. coli O157:H7, which is known for producing a particularly nasty toxin called Shiga. People infected with O157:H7 tend to experience severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting, with symptoms usually showing up three to four days after exposure. Most people do recover on their own after about a week, but the infection can sometimes cause a life-threatening condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome that can shut down the kidneys.
So far, no common food tying these cases together has been found. But historically, outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 tend to be traced back to raw or undercooked meat, raw dairy products, or contaminated vegetables. Though this is the first E. coli O157:H7 outbreak to be highlighted by the CDC in 2022, the Food and Drug Administration reported a cluster of 10 cases in June. That outbreak has seemingly since ended, but no source was ever identified.
Regardless of where this foodborne bug may be coming from, there are always prudent steps to take while cooking or handling food that can reduce your risk of catching any stomach bug. These include washing your hands, utensils, and kitchen surfaces regularly, as well as rinsing your fruits and vegetables under running water before eating, cutting, or peeling them; separating other foods from raw meat during the prep process; cooking your food long and hot enough; and promptly refrigerating foods that can go bad (usually within two hours).