Fond du Lac reports suspected E.coli outbreak
The Fond du Lac Reservation and the Minnesota Department of Health are working together to discover the source of a suspected E.coli outbreak that may have affected up to two dozen people.
“We know we have a few folks who have presented at our clinic and who have been confirmed as having E.coli," said Chuck Walt, executive director of tribal programs for the Fond du Lac Band. "There are others who have been hospitalized with symptoms that are consistent with E.coli but who have not yet been confirmed as having it.”
April Bogard, environmental health supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Health's (MDH) Food, Pools and Lodging section, said the department first heard of the possible E.coli outbreak late in the day on Thursday, July 10, from health officials at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet.
"When people with symptoms of E.coli went to Community Memorial Hospital for treatment," Walt explained, "the hospital had the obligation to notify the Department of Health of the suspected food-borne illnesses."
Bogard said because there was a cluster of cases with similar symptoms starting to show up at CMH, the MDH made some calls to confirm it prior to beginning an outbreak investigation.
"We contacted Fond du Lac and then went ahead from there," she said.
Walt stated the MDH is now conducting community surveys as part of an epidemiologic study to try to target when and how the outbreak may have started.
"We have had conversations with the Fond du Lac administration and the reservation’s human services department, which provided the Department of Health with various names and contact numbers," verified Bogard.
The reservation also posted a notice about the suspected E.coli outbreak on its website along with information on how to get in touch with the Department of Health with questions and concerns. Bogard said the Department has been talking with several people from the reservation as a result of that information.
"Though the MDH is making progress," said Walt, "they have not yet determined the source of the contamination. Part of their job is to triangulate where the affected people were, what they ate and if there was any one person in particular who may have been already ill.”
Walt said at this point it would be difficult to tie the health issues in with any particular source, saying the reservation has hosted many community events in recent days, including the Veterans Powwow, an elders' picnic, a walk and several others, all of which have had food associated with them that has come from a number of different sources.
The reservation is advising its members that leftover food that hasn’t been handled properly is a common source of food-borne disease and recommending that anyone having leftovers from any recent community event should discard them.
Walt urged that anyone with health concerns, particularly those who are experiencing bloody diarrhea (a primary symptom of E.coli contamination), should contact their healthcare provider as soon as possible, either on a walk-in or emergency basis.
He said that those on the reservation who have exhibited symptoms of possible E.coli-related health issues thus far represent a broad age span. He added that the very young, the elderly or anyone with an immune-compromised system should be especially vigilant about seeking immediate treatment.
“Public health is our number one concern, and we want to make sure that anyone with symptoms is treated as soon as possible," said Walt.
Bogard said about two dozen suspected cases of possible E.coli are being investigated, though she admitted it is “still really early in the investigation and those numbers can change a lot.”
She said the MDH is now awaiting lab confirmation to narrow down which strain of E.coli is involved, adding results were expected on Wednesday.
"There are a number of samples in the lab taken from patients with symptoms that are very consistent with what we would expect in an E.coli outbreak," she verified.
Bogard said E.coli often shows up within one to three days of exposure, though it can take longer, and the symptoms can last from a couple of days to a week or longer. She said the overriding danger is either dehydration and/or the fact that certain types of E.coli can lead to more serious issues. She said so far, there have not been a lot of younger people among the patients tested.
E.coli is often food- or water-borne, but it can also be contracted from various animals, such as in a petting zoo. It occurs in many different places, and it can even be passed along by an infected food worker who doesn't know he or she is carrying it.
"The test results expected this week will hopefully yield more specific information on what type of E.coli infection we’re dealing with, what type of treatment should be provided and serve as a guide in dealing with the outbreak," said Bogard, explaining that certain types of E.coli tend to occur more often with certain foods, which could give investigators a clue as to where the contamination came from.
According to the MDH, although most strains of E.coli are harmless and live in the intestines of healthy humans and animals, the E.coli 0157:H7 strain produces a powerful toxin that can cause severe illness. Approximately 160 to 220 cases of E. coli O157:H7 are reported in Minnesota each year.
Common symptoms include severe bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps and little or no fever. Other symptoms may include non-bloody diarrhea or no symptoms at all.
Complications can include Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, which develops in about 5 percent of reported E. coli O157:H7 cases, most frequently in young children or the elderly.
Many E.coli illnesses have been associated with eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef. Produce items (e.g., lettuce and sprouts) can be contaminated through contact with cattle feces in the field. Person-to-person contact in families and childcare centers is also a common mode of transmission. Infection can also occur after drinking raw milk and after swimming in or drinking water contaminated by farm animals, usually cattle.
Hopefully, Wednesday's test results will provide the clues needed to zero in on what may have caused the particular cases on the reservation.
“The good news is that as of today (Tuesday), there have been no new admittances of people with suspected infections," said Walt. “We’re hoping we’re on the downhill side of things and the people who need treatment are already getting it.”
For more information and specific symptoms related to E. coli infection, go to www.health.state.mn.us/divs/idepc/diseases/ecoli/ecoli.pdf. The MDH also provided the following contact numbers for individuals who have questions or would like to learn more about E. coli or any other food-borne illness: toll free 1-877-FOOD ILL (1-877-366-3455) or 651-201-5277.