E. coli sickens girls at EWU cheer camp


Investigators aren't sure of infection's source

At least seven girls have been diagnosed with an E. coli infection after attending a cheerleading camp at Eastern Washington University last weekend.

At least two girls were hospitalized briefly, and dozens of others are reporting symptoms of the infection, which range from headaches and fatigue to bloody diarrhea.

Specialists from the Spokane Regional Health District and the Washington State Department of Health were in the process of contacting all of the camp's 130 participants Thursday night. About half are from Spokane County.

"We're actively exploring all avenues and establishing commonalities," said Melanie Rose, public information manager for the Health District.

Food inspectors from the district spent Thursday at EWU working with university officials trying to identify potential sources of the outbreak.

"There's not a lot of food to collect since the camp ended Sunday," Rose said. "We're also looking into the issue of water and attempting to test all the 5-gallon containers used at the camp."

Though the source of the contamination is still under investigation -- it hasn't been determined if the infected girls ate or drank on or off campus -- university officials were serving only pre-packaged food until late Thursday afternoon.

"We're following the direction of the Health District and giving them full cooperation," said Tom McGill, director of public safety and chief of university police.

The Health District authorized the school's food service program to resume operations Thursday evening, with several conditions in place until further notice:

• The program must eliminate sprouts from its menu. Sprouts are difficult to wash and are among the most notorious carriers of food-borne diseases.

• All meals served outdoors must be cooked and prepared indoors.

• Certain ice machines will be emptied and sanitized.

The Seattle Seahawks open training camp at EWU next week.

Last year in Spokane County, there were 12 confirmed cases reported of E. coli 0157 -- the strain that affected the camp participants.

E. coli bacteria normally live in the intestines of humans and animals. Most strains are harmless, but several -- including E. coli 0157 -- produce toxins that can cause bloody diarrhea.

Anyone who ate food from the EWU campus July 11-14 who exhibits symptoms should contact a health care provider immediately.