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Far-flung E. coli outbreak sickens 14 in 6 states

Cases have popped up in six states, including Georgia, Florida and California. So far, three people have been hospitalized and one little girl has died. NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports.

Update, June 22: One additional victim has been confirmed in an outbreak of E. coli O145 infections that puzzled state and federal health officials, bringing the total illnesses to 15 identified in six states. No source of the outbreak has been identified, the Centers for Disease Control and infection said Friday. Because the last illness was detected six weeks ago, the outbreak may be over, but officials said they'll continue to search for sources of the infections.

 

Federal health officials are investigating a mysterious outbreak of E. coli infections that has sickened at least 14 people in six states, including a 21-month-old Louisiana girl who died.

No source has been identified for the strain of E. coli O145 genetically linked to illnesses in states as far-flung as Florida and California, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Friday. People became ill between April 15 and May 12. 

Most of the infections have been reported in Georgia, with five cases, and Louisiana, with four cases, including the death of the child identified as Maelan Elizabeth Graffagnini of New Orleans.

Two infections with the outbreak strain have been reported in Alabama and one each has been reported in California, Florida and Tennessee. The Florida victim is a 22-year-old woman from Leon County, state health officials said. 

“This ongoing multi-state investigation has not yet identified a source of those infections,” a CDC statement released Friday said. “The investigation is looking at both food and non-food exposures.”

Health officials in several states are interviewing ill people to determine how they may have been exposed to the E. coli strain, one of several Shiga Toxin-producing E. coli — or STEC  varieties.

The most common STEC is E. coli O157:H7, which is the potentially deadly strain commonly linked to ground beef. The strain of E. coli O145 is less common, but can be just as harmful. 

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began testing certain cuts of commercially produced beef for E. coli O145 and five other STEC strains that have the potential to cause serious illness and death.

People typically become ill between two and eight days after being infected. Most people develop diarrhea, including watery and bloody diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. Most people get better in a week, but some people including children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems  can become seriously ill, developing a condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause kidney failure and death.

While the specific cause of the outbreak remains unknown, health officials recommend several general steps to prevent transmission of illness:

  • Wash your hands after using the bathroom, changing diapers and before eating or preparing food. Wash up also after contact with animals or their environments, including petting zoos, farms, fairs and home backyards.
  • Prevent cross contamination of food by washing hands, counters, cutting boards and utensils after they touch raw meat.
  • Cook meat thoroughly. Ground beef and meat that has been tenderized should be cooked to at least 160 degrees F. Use a meat thermometer to check doneness.
  • Avoid raw milk, unpasteurized dairy products and unpasteurized juices such as fresh apple cider.
  • Avoid swallowing water when swimming or playing in lakes, ponds, streams, swimming pools and kiddie pools.

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