Michigan health officials are urging residents to take precautions to make sure their food is safe as three health departments investigate an increase in the number of illnesses linked to E. coli bacteria.
Health departments in Kent, Ottawa and Oakland counties are investigating an increase in illnesses caused by the bacteria. Michigan has received reports of 98 cases of E. coli infection in August. Last year, health officials only received reports of 20 cases in the same time period.
The investigation is in its early stages, but laboratory results have linked some of the cases together.
“While reports of E. coli illness typically increase during the warmer summer months, this significant jump in cases is alarming,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, MDHHS chief medical executive. “This is a reminder to make sure to follow best practices when it comes to hand hygiene and food handling to prevent these kinds of foodborne illness. If you are experiencing symptoms of E. coli infection like cramping and diarrhea (or gastrointestinal distress), especially if they are severe, make sure to let your health care provider know.”
What is Escherichia coli (E. coli)?
Escherichia coli (E. coli) are bacteria that are found in the environment, foods and intestines of people and animals. They are a large and diverse group of bacteria, according to the CDC.
Most strains are harmless, but some can make people sick. Some strains can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia -- among other illnesses.
What are the symptoms of E. coli-related illness?
Symptosm vary from person to person, but often include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody) and vomiting.
Some people have a fever, which is usually not very high. Most people feel better within five to seven days. Some infections are mild, but others are severe or even life-threatening.
Symptoms usually appear three to four days after the exposure, but may appear in just one day or as long as 10 days. Young children and older adults may be more likely to experience severe illness.
Around 5% to 10% of people diagnosed with an infection develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which appears seven days after symptoms begin, often when diarrhea is improving. Symptoms include decreased frequency of urination, feeling very tired and losing color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids.
If you have symptoms, you should contact your doctor immediately. Your doctor should contact their local health department to report suspected or confirmed cases to the state.
What can you do to protect yourself from E. coli?
People with higher chances for foodborne illness are pregnant women, newborns, children, older adults, and those with weak immune systems, such as people with cancer, diabetes, or HIV/AIDS.
Health officials say you can prevent an E. coli-related illness by following proper hand hygiene and food handling practices.
The CDC said proper hand hygiene practices are as follows:
- Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom and changing diapers.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before and after preparing or eating food.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after contact with animals or their environments (at farms, petting zoos, fairs, even your own backyard).
- Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing and feeding bottles or foods to an infant or toddler, before touching an infant or toddler’s mouth, and before touching pacifiers or other things that go into an infant or toddler’s mouth.
- Keep all objects that enter infants’ and toddlers’ mouths (such as pacifiers and teethers) clean.
- If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol (check the product label to be sure). These alcohol-based products can quickly reduce the number of germs on hands in some situations, but they are not a substitute for washing with soap and running water.
Food safety tips
You should also follow the four steps to food safety when preparing food: Clean, separate, cook and chill.
- Clean: Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during and after preparing food and before eating. Wash your utensils, cutting boards and countertops with hot, soapy water, after preparing each food item. Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water.
- Separate: Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs can spread germs to read-to-eat foods unless you keep them separate. Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry, seafood and keep their juices away from other foods. Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate from all other foods in the refrigerator.
- Cook: Cook to the right temperature. Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature is high enough to kill germs that can make you safe. The only way to tell is by using a food thermometer (except for seafood). Click here to learn more about safe internal temperatures.
- Chill: Bacteria can multiply rapidly if left at room temperature or at temps between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. Divide warm foods into several clean, shallow containers so they will chill faster. Refrigerate perishable food within two hours.
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