The full name of the E. coli bacterium is Escherichia coli. Both harmless and disease-causing strains of this organism are found in the intestinal tracts of animals and humans. It thrives in raw or undercooked meat (especially beef products), unpasteurised milk dairy products and has also been found in raw vegetables and apple juice.
During the 2011-E. coli outbreak a variety of raw vegetables, including lettuce, tomatoes and bean sprouts, have been suspected as the food vehicles responsible for transmitting this organism (News24, 2011). It is also very often called 'the traveller's bug' because it frequently affects people who visit foreign countries, as it also found in untreated water. Swimming in water that is sewage-infected could also result in an E. coli infection. The 2011 outbreak of E. coli is an example of the spread of this bacteria throughout Europe through contaminated food.
There is a particular strain of E. coli that is called Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli or EHEC, which can lead to bloody diarrhoea and kidney failure in immune-compromised persons, children, and the elderly. The 2011 outbreak of EHEC mainly occurred in older women, but did not affect children (Kennedy, 2011).
Proper cooking will destroy E. coli bacteria in beef and other meat products. Fruit and vegetables must be properly washed before eating and travellers must only drink bottled water when visiting a country where the cleanliness of the tap water is questionable. It is best not to swim in rivers in these countries and people should stay away from underchlorinated swimming pools.
The symptoms of E. coli are similar to the symptoms of other bacterial infections, and include exhaustion, occasional vomiting, watery and sometimes bloody diarrhoea, abdominal cramps and severe nausea.
In most cases, treatment is not needed. The infection usually clears up within five to ten days by itself. Health care professionals advise against taking diarrhoea medications in mild cases, so that the bacteria can be expelled from the body. However, if an E. coli infection should become serious with severe vomiting and bloody diarrhoea, it is essential to seek medical attention as soon as possible, as patients may be infected with a virulent strain of EHEC and develop HUS. - (Health24, September 2011)
Extract from an article written by Dr Andrew Whitelaw, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital
Updated by Dr I van Heerden, DietDoc, Monday, June 13, 2011