11-year-old dies of illness linked to E. coli Health officials testing food at two restaurants

October 05, 1997|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

County health officials are analyzing food samples from two area restaurants where an 11-year-old Taneytown girl dined in the 10 days before she died of an illness that is frequently linked to a toxic strain of E. coli bacteria.

Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture food safety inspectors are also checking several restaurants in the Hanover, Pa., area that were patronized by the family of Kara L. Staley.

Health officials say the tests are a standard precaution, and no evidence exists of an outbreak of food-borne illness. The most common source of E. coli infection is meat, especially rare or undercooked ground beef.

The test results are not expected to be released to the public unless an outbreak occurs. Health officials say the test data could help identify a source of contaminated food if other local residents suffer illnesses linked to E. coli.

Kara died Sept. 24 at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa., of hemolytic uremic syndrome, a condition in which red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail.

The syndrome follows infections "including, but not exclusively, of E. coli," said Dr. Deborah Kees-Folts, professor of pediatrics at the medical center. "She had no evidence of E. coli."

Carroll County Health Officer Larry L. Leitch said that if state laboratory tests implicate a local restaurant, health inspectors will step up inspections to ensure food-handling practices are safe. But he does not plan to make the information public.

"Would I consider this releaseable to the public as county health officer? Probably not, because it's a single individual," Leitch said.

He said state law allows a health officer to make the information public if a compelling public interest is at stake, which he interprets as an outbreak.

The E. coli bacterium has 200 strains. Some are harmless. One, O157: H7, produces a toxin that can cause symptoms ranging from diarrhea that lasts a few days to the life-threatening hemolytic uremic syndrome, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

But other organisms also can cause the syndrome, making it difficult for physicians to pinpoint the cause of Kara's illness.

Charles L. Zeleski, county Health Department's director of environmental health, said health inspectors found "nothing that would indicate anything wrong" with food-handling practices at the restaurants sampled.

He said the county Health Department was asked by the state health department to get food samples for testing.

Dr. Martin L. Sanders, head of the state's division of outbreak investigation, refused to confirm that the state laboratory is testing food samples from Carroll County. He said lab tests can pinpoint a source of illness.

A family physician may diagnose an E. coli O157: H7 infection on the basis of symptoms and administer antibiotics. "But for public health, we need laboratory evidence," he said.

Kees-Folts said tests at the Hershey hospital revealed no evidence of E. coli. Food analysis is a standard precaution, she said.

"Whenever anyone is seen in a hospital or doctor's-office setting with an illness that has some possibility of being food-borne, you would always ask questions about foods, about eating out," she said.

It's natural to look for the root of Kara's illness, Kees-Folts said, but it may not be found. "Even in cases where E. coli is identified, it's rarely possible to trace it back to the source," she said.

To avoid infection with O157: H7, experts recommend eating only thoroughly cooked meats and pasteurized milk and dairy products, avoiding sewage-contaminated water, washing fruits and vegetables before eating and washing hands before and after handling food or eating.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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