Massachussetts Investigates 6 E. coli Cases

BOSTON—Federal and state health officials are investigating the cases of six people who were sickened by a virulent strain of E. coli in Massachusetts that appears to be linked to those found in several other states, officials said Monday.

At least five of the Massachusetts victims were hospitalized. Their ages range between 3 and 60, and include residents of Middlesex, Suffolk and Essex counties, according to the state Department of Public Health.

They reported becoming ill between July 10 and July 16. They were all victims of a virulent bacteria strain, E. coli O157:H7, that is harbored mainly in the intestines of cattle, said Dr. Bela Matyas, medical director of the epidemiology program for the state health department.

The E. coli strain can get into meat through improper butchering and processing. It produces a particular type of toxin that causes severe bleeding and diarrhea -- and has been associated with kidney damage in young children, kidney failure and fatalities.

A source of the Massachusetts contamination has not been identified, but state and U.S. Department of Agriculture investigators are focusing on ground beef, Matyas said.

Testing of samples collected from several stores will be conducted this week, the department of health said in a statement.

"Massachusetts cases were linked by DNA testing and by comparing those results to results from others around the country through a federal foodborne illness surveillance program called PulseNet," according to the statement.

Nebraska Beef Ltd. of Omaha has recalled 5.3 million pounds of ground beef linked to E. coli illnesses across the nation.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 49 cases in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Utah.

Symptoms of E. coli infection include stomach cramps and watery diarrhea that may turn bloody within one to three days.