If you’ve ever wondered what is E. Coli or how do you get E. Coli, media buzz surrounding the disease may have you somewhat confused. In 2011, like many other years before, the news was filled with talk of E. Coli outbreaks. In March, the Northeast was infected by bologna, in April, northern states endured an outbreak from hazelnuts and in September, St. Louis was warned about the risk of E. Coli when Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. recalled over 131,000 pounds of ground beef. Furthermore, in October, a California company recalled nearly 378,000 pounds of ground beef due to the E. Coli bacteria.
It would seem to the average person that E. Coli comes from food, but after St. Louis’ KMOV news shared a mid-October report of E. Coli being found on cell phones, it’s easy to become confused or even frightened.
The first fact that you need to know is that not all E. Coli are harmful. Strains of E. Coli live in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals and provide a protective balance in the microbiological makeup. However, other strains can be poisonous to humans, which is why the Centers for Disease Control report approximately 70,000 cases of E. Coli illness each year. When these poisonous strains spread, an outbreak is reported.
E. Coli can affect one person or spread through multitudes of people depending on how the initial contact with the bacteria occurred. Food can become contaminated when E. Coli from animals is spread to the food we eat. Ground beef is a common culprit due to E. Coli from the animals’ intestines getting into the meat. Most milk that we buy is pasteurized, a process of heating the liquid to reduce the growth of micro-organisms. However, unpasteurized milk can contain E. Coli from the cow that produced the milk. Vegetables can become contaminated when the feces on animal farms is carried by nature’s elements into fields where produce is grown.
For these reasons, it is important to handle food properly. Store food at the right temperatures, cook meat thoroughly, wash vegetables before consumption and disinfect all utensils, cutting boards or counter tops that come into contact with raw foods.
Though food is a common source of bacteria, it’s not the only way that E. Coli is spread. E. Coli can also be spread from contaminated human and animal feces through water or hands on contact with the bacteria. For instance, if you should swallow water from a lake, river or even swimming pool that is infected with feces, you could become quite ill from E. Coli. Though most of our residential water sources use chlorine or other methods to kill E. Coli before it ever reaches us, natural water supplies such as lakes can become infected in much the same way produce fields are tainted. Swimming pools, though treated with chlorine, may still not offer enough protection if infected water is swallowed.
Furthermore, cell phones or really, any object, can become a carrier for the E. Coli bacteria when human or animal feces is spread through touch. Simply washing your hands after using the restroom, changing diapers or handling animals such as on a farm or at a petting zoo, can eliminate this type of E. Coli transmission.
Though E. Coli can cause severe cases of diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, fever and even bloody stool, most people infected by E. Coli recover completely within a week. However, it’s important to take precautions, not only to avoid these symptoms, but to avoid developing a life-threatening type of kidney failure which is especially dangerous to young children, older adults or those with weakened immune systems.
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