The German E. coli outbreak has now killed at least 23 people and sickened more than 2,300 others — including one person from Massachusetts, who recently traveled to Hamburg, Germany and is confirmed as having a strain that matches the German type, according to the CDC.
Officially called “Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O104:H4” or “STEC O104:H4,” the current outbreak is scary because of its virulence: a large number of victims have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a.k.a., acute kidney failure.
U.S. public health and regulatory authorities say that so far, there’s no indication that any of the potential sources of the outbreak — raw sprouts, tomatoes, cucumbers and leafy salads from northern Germany — have been shipped here from Europe. Still, I decided to do an E. coli reality check with Bill Marler, a plaintiff’s lawyer based in Seattle, who specializes in food-borne illness cases. Marler made his name back in the early 1990s, winning a $15.6 million settlement on behalf of a little girl sickened by a Jack In The Box hamburger. Since then, he has been involved in every major E. coli case in the country. He’s got no formal scientific training, as far as I know, but the guy is pretty savvy about this little bacterium.
I asked Bill if this strain is unique. Here, condensed and edited, is what he said:
1. This Particular Strain Hasn’t Been Seen Before, But Others In The Family Have Been Around
In the U.S. the most widely seen strain is E coli O157:H7 — that’s the strain behind the so-called “Jack In The Box” outbreak, and the 2006 spinach outbreak. For a little background: there are billions of E. coli bacteria in your body at any given time, and most are benign. Only a handful cause human disease. In Europe, they’ve seen more of the non-0157 varieties than we see in the U.S. — possibly because they are more prevalent, possibly because they test more. Here in the U.S., however, there have been outbreaks involving this subfamily: In the 1990s milk in Montana was found to be tainted, as well as hamburger tested in 2009.
2. Not Likely A New Superbug
There is definitely cause for alarm here: the strain hasn’t been seen, the death toll is high and likely will grow higher and a lot of people are suffering from kidney failure (about 28 percent, Bill says). But, he says, “it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the government or industry.” These pathogens have been around before and “probably what’s happening now is not some new Superbug. It’s just a nasty, more virulent subspecies coming forward.” Continue reading