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Prior outbreaks give insight to current analysis of illnesses

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released details Thursday about previous E. coli outbreaks similar to one under investigation in northeast Oklahoma.

View More Most Popular Categories... One person has died and at least 206 people — including at least 42 children — have become ill in connection with the Oklahoma outbreak, which is believed to have started at the Country Cottage restaurant in Locust Grove.

Health officials blame rare toxin-producing bacteria called E. coli O111 for the outbreak in Oklahoma — and for only 10 previous outbreaks in the U.S., according to the CDC, which is a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, based in Atlanta.

Food transmitted the bacteria in four of the 10 cases, said to Dr. Samir Sodha, an epidemiologist in the CDC's food-borne illness branch. The CDC can only identify the source of two of those outbreaks, he said.

In 1999, a salad bar was blamed for severe stomach illnesses at a cheerleading camp in north Texas. Fifty-eight of the 650 campers got stomach cramps and severe diarrhea, according to the CDC. In 2004, 212 people in New York became sick and 14 people were hospitalized after drinking unpasteurized apple cider that was suspected to have been contaminated with E. coli O111.

Some of the other 10 outbreaks associated with the rare strain of E. coli were caused by water contamination or other environmental contamination, Sodha said.

In search of clues

"Normally it's the outbreaks that give us the clue as to how it's transmitted, and we just don't have that many to go back on,” Sodha said.

He praised officials at the state Health Department for working to identify the strain of E. coli quickly.

State Epidemiologist Kristy Bradley has said the Oklahoma outbreak is the largest of E. coli O111 in U.S. history. However, in terms of total illnesses alone, the outbreak in New York in 2004 appears to be slightly larger.

The state Health Department released few details about the outbreak on Thursday, saying workers are taking time to go back over interviews and to review the data they've collected.

To date, the department has interviewed 600 people and plans to interview 200 more in connection with the outbreak, said Leslea Bennett-Webb, the department's spokeswoman. She declined to say how many state employees are working on the case.

Bennett-Webb said only one of the 206 illnesses associated with the outbreak was caused by secondary infection, meaning the person got sick without having eaten contaminated food.

She declined to say whether all of the remaining illnesses were tied to the Country Cottage restaurant, but said that most of the 206 victims had eaten at the buffet restaurant before becoming ill with severe stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea.

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