6 other cases suspected as source sought
The Star Ledger (NJ)
Jonathan Casiano and Nyier Abdou
A serious E. coli outbreak in central New Jersey has led to 11 confirmed cases and at least six suspected cases over the past two weeks.
The victims, from towns in Middlesex, Somerset and Monmouth counties, are primarily children, though two adults also have been infected, said Middlesex County Director of Health David Papi.
In the two most serious cases, the victims have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a serious condition that can cause permanent kidney damage. Those victims, along with four others, remained hospitalized last night, Papi said.
"This is a significant outbreak of a serious disease, and a significant amount of people are ill," he said, calling the magnitude of the outbreak uncommon.
Investigators have yet to determine the source of the outbreak, though a Taco Bell restaurant on Stelton Road in South Plainfield is suspected. Nine of the 11 confirmed victims ate at the Taco Bell, and on Thursday the fast food restaurant agreed to voluntarily shut down until the source is identified, Papi said.
An inspection of the restaurant last week did not reveal any significant health code violations, Papi said, but investigators are still waiting on the results of stool tests run on 21 Taco Bell employees.
Health officials were also awaiting test results on the six suspected cases, two of which were reported just yesterday. The first confirmed case was reported on Nov. 17, Papi said. Since then, cases have been confirmed in Edison, Woodbridge, Atlantic Highlands, Franklin Township, Piscataway, New Brunswick and Monroe Township.
The oldest victim so far is 23, while the youngest is just a year old. The victims have been treated at John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, Saint Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick and Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, Papi said.
The strain of E. coli bacteria identified in the 11 confirmed cases is scientifically known as E. coli O157:H7, the same strain found in packaged spinach earlier this year. That outbreak killed three people and sickened more than 200 nationwide. It was eventually traced to a cattle ranch near spinach fields in California's Salinas Valley.
Papi said initial food samples sent from the South Plainfield Taco Bell to the state Department of Health have tested negative for E. coli, though investigators are still assembling a list of common foods eaten by several victims. Two other eateries, a local diner and another Taco Bell, also have been inspected but remain open with no evidence of contamination, Papi said.
This strain of E. coli is commonly present in the intestines of healthy cattle, goats and sheep and can end up mixed into meat during slaughter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The bacteria is most commonly spread through contaminated meat but is also found in foods like lettuce, spinach and unpasteurized milk, according to the CDC. Swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water can also lead to infection, and poor hygiene can lead to the spread of E. coli from person to person.
Papi said E. coli victims can take several days to exhibit symptoms and advised anyone experiencing such symptoms to see a doctor. E. coli symptoms include abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, which in some cases will be bloody.
Concerned residents can also call the Middlesex County Health Department at (732) 745-3100 with questions.