Estimates of E. Coli Cases
Double In US
By Jayne O'Donnell
A harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning may be twice as prevalent as previously thought, federal health officials say.
As many as 40,000 people a year may become ill from the E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics expected to be released early next year. The CDC attributes the increase to a change in its methodology for counting illnesses related to E. coli.
In addition, other data is expected to show that recent efforts to combat E. coli are not as effective as believed. The number of reported E. coli outbreaks, which can range from as few as two illnesses or many hundreds linked to a single source, jumped 50% this year after falling for two years, according to CDC statistics obtained by USA TODAY.
Exposure to E. coli 0157:H7 can cause severe cramping or diarrhea. It can lead to kidney failure and death.
Undercooked or raw hamburger has been implicated in nearly all documented outbreaks.
This year there have been 32 outbreaks of E. coli 0157:H7 and one of another hazardous strain. That is up from 22 outbreaks in 1997 but about equal to earlier levels.
Meat industry officials had cited the 1997 decrease as evidence that new federal efforts to combat food poisoning were working. The new statistics weaken that argument.
''People were starting to think we had a system that was all of a sudden working. That's not the case,'' says Donna Rosenbaum, scientific adviser to the consumer group Safe Tables Our Priority.
The outbreak statistics capture just a fraction of the 20,000 to 40,000 people who may be infected with E. coli each year. Since 1996, the federal government has been gathering information on people who go to the hospital or see a doctor because of diarrhea. From that data, officials estimate the number of illnesses.
The CDC has been using estimates of 10,000 to 20,000 people a year made ill by E. coli. Those figures were based on sampling done in a single county in Washington state where an E. coli outbreak in 1993 affected 700 people.
Although the data are preliminary, two CDC officials have quoted the illness figures in discussions with industry and consumer groups. Paul Mead, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC, confirms he has used the 40,000 estimate but says research will not be complete until early next year.
Likewise, the outbreak statistics are not final. Mead attributes the increase to improved surveillance by the CDC.