On Oct. 18, the University community received confirmation that a student had been diagnosed with a specific strain of E. coli. Later that day, Dr. Thomas McLarney notified the campus community via email, but since then, no source has been found. One other student has been diagnosed with this strain of E. coli, 0157H7.
“There’s so many types of E. coli,” McLarney said. “As a matter of fact, we all have E. coli in our body, in our large intestine. But that’s just run-of-the-mill E. coli. It’s that same bacteria when men and women get urinary tract infections (UTIs).”
UTIs are the most common place where E. coli can be found. McLarney said that it differs; however, from the 0157H7 strain, which releases the shiga toxin.
“Typically when we hear shiga toxin, this is the 0157H7 variety,” McLarney said. “The normal E. coli that we all have do not produce this toxin. But what the shiga toxin does, it’s released in our body and it can cause some bad things.”
Some of the more unfortunate side effects include kidney failure, which is usually temporary unless the patient already has issues with their kidney; significant amnesia; and a drop in blood platelets.
“It causes those three things, and we call this condition hemolytic-uremic syndrome,” McLarney said. “It happens in anywhere from 10 percent, [and] maybe higher, of people who do get infected with this particular strand of E. coli. So when we see this, it shakes us up quite a bit.”
The potential of the 0157H7 E. coli to do damage is great, and as such, the University contacted both the Middletown Health Department and the State Health Department to help launch an investigation into the potential source of the bacteria.
“[The Health Department’s] job is to actually do the investigative detective work and look at any possible source into investigation,” McLarney said. “[They] check restaurants and check other places to see if there’s any possibility that we can find a source. Sometimes a source isn’t found, and if we have no further cases, then it remains a mystery. But as long as we don’t have any further cases, that’s fine. If we don’t find a source and then we have repeated cases, then we have to work harder so we can find that source and take care of it.”
Last week, tensions were particularly high when it wasn’t clear if the strain was from one of the campus food establishments.
“We were all surprised to hear about E. coli on campus, and we were all wondering where it had originated,” Ellie Donner-Klein ’19 said. “Some people were worried about their food on campus and catching it that way.”
However, worries have greatly lessened this week.
“At this point, we know that we haven’t seen any cases that have been related to any particular food establishment, particularly on campus,” McLarney said. “That’s for the state to certainly determine, but I think that if they even thought that that would be a possibility, they would say, ‘You need to close down, you can’t serve food until further notice.’ The state is very, very good about doing that stuff, so the fact that they didn’t close anything down, that they have very low to no suspicion that it’s anything that can be caught on campus is reassuring in and of itself.”
“I think the email probably worried people a little,” Arielle Schwartz ’19 said. “Who likes seeing something about E. coli in their mail box? But then we haven’t heard anything since so it doesn’t seem to be such a big concern now.”
According to McLarney, the campus community probably does not need to worry about the E. Coli strain that two students were diagnosed with last week. But, there are definitely warning signs that students should watch out for.
“Certainly if anybody was having severe diarrhea, and even if it wasn’t severe, if they were having bloody diarrhea, we would want them to come here,” McLarney said. “My email last week said if you were having any diarrhea we want to see it, because we were trying to check as many people as we could, to see if we could isolate any more cases of this. If we isolated more cases, it may have pointed to a certain source for it. Fortunately, we didn’t see more cases, so we’re thinking that it might have just been a sporadic type of thing.”
But for those still worried, McLarney suggests hand washing. He also recommended avoiding certain foods that are well known for carrying the E. coli strain 0157H7.
“We know that the most common food that this comes from is undercooked meat,” McLarney said. “We know that certain vegetables [like] alfalfa and lettuce can be infected, just because of the water systems used to water these types of things. Salami is for some unknown reason, unpasteurized milk, and cider also can carry it.”
This being said, McLarney thinks that the E. coli scare is over, and that the University community can relax.
“If they found something, believe me they would let us know,” McLarney said. “You would see a closed sign nailed to a door someplace. That’s the good news so far. The ideal scenario is not seeing any more cases, but finding the source and taking care of the source. Sometimes you just never find the source unfortunately. You just hope that no further cases develop. Though, of course if further cases develop, the state will have to re-investigate.”