Escherchia coli (E. coli) are bacteria that live in the environment and in the gastrointestinal system of humans and animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless, but some kinds of E. coli can make people very sick, including those types that produce Shiga toxin. These types of E. coli are called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). STEC can be found in a variety of different foods including ground beef, sprouts, leafy greens and raw milk.
People can get sick with a STEC infection by eating food or drinking liquids that have been contaminated with STEC, or by having contact with animals or people who are already infected with STEC. Symptoms can begin anywhere from one to 10 days after being exposed to the bacteria. Symptoms include stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. The diarrhea can often be bloody. The illness typically lasts five to 10 days and most people fully recover, but some may develop a serious complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS is characterized by renal failure, hemolytic anemia, and thrombocytopenia and can sometimes be fatal.
STEC infections are the third most commonly reported foodborne disease in Vermont. Between 2010 and 2015, an average of 20 STEC infections were reported to the Vermont Department of Health. The rate of STEC infections in Vermont is approximately the same as in the rest of the U.S. In 2014, the average rate of STEC infections across the country was 2.34 infections per 100,000 people. That same year, Vermont’s rate of infection was 2.40 infections per 100,000 people.
Sometimes STEC can cause outbreaks, where many people get sick at the same time. In Vermont, recent outbreaks of STEC infections have been associated with undercooked ground beef.
People who may be sick with STEC should contact their health care provider so that they can be tested and treated. Since STEC can be passed from one person to another, people with a STEC infection should stay home from school or work while they are sick. People with a recent STEC infection can continue to shed the bacteria in their stool even after their symptoms have resolved, so it is important that people who work in jobs where STEC can be easily spread – such as food handlers, health care workers or day care providers – stop their work duties while they are still carrying the bacteria. Frequent and thorough hand washing with soap and water is also an effective way to prevent the spread of STEC.