By Nicklaus Lovelady
FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS--A Mexican restaurant at St. Clair Square shopping mall closed voluntarily Friday after five "probable or confirmed" cases of E. coli illnesses were traced there.
Habanero's Mexican Restaurant is cooperating fully with the St. Clair County Health Department. Five people sick with the illness ate at the restaurant Aug. 23 or 24, according to a statement issued by the health department. The people fell ill between Aug. 25 and 27.
"We've found the common denominator with the people who become sick, and the common denominator is that they ate at Habanero's," said Tom Budnik, president of St. Louis Taqueria, the company that owns Habanero's. "I've sought out the health department and decided to voluntarily close the restaurant so we can evaluate the situation."
Budnik said he is working with the health department to find out the source of the E. coli and is investigating food purchases he made from suppliers.
He did not say when the restaurant will reopen.
The St. Clair county Health Department is classifying the illnesses as being caused by E. coli O157:H7, a form of E. coli carried through raw meats and vegetables that can cause diarrhea, seizure, stroke, or death.
O'Fallon resident Linda Eastwood said her daughter, son-in-law, and daughter's friend were severely ill with e. coli and had to be hospitalized after eating at Habanero's on Aug. 23. Eastwood, who also ate at the restaurant, said she was the only one of her family who did not get sick.
"I tried to call the health department and the mall, but no one would take us seriously," she said. "I think the public has a right to know what's going on."
Many infected with e. coli develop severe diarrhea and painful abdominal cramps, although some people have few or no symptoms, according to the health department. The diarrhea can be bloody, and the sufferer may not realize E. coli is responsible. The illness usually runs its course in five to 10 days.
Those who ate at Habanero's on Aug. 23, Aug. 24 or any time since and have had severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps, or other symptoms are asked to notify their physicians.
The county health department is coordinating its investigation with the Illinois Department of Public Health and surrounding health departments including St. Louis City and County health departments.