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Six people exposed to E. coli

Fresno Co. investigates three parties that had food from 'common supplier.'

By Barbara Anderson

The Fresno Bee


Fresno County health investigators are looking for the food source of an E. coli outbreak that sent six people to hospitals and likely sickened others.

Five people suspected of having E. coli were at a private party on May 19, said Fresno County Health Officer Ed Moreno.

Investigators are interviewing people who attended two other small, private gatherings held on that day, Moreno said at a Tuesday news conference.

All three parties included food "from one common supplier," Moreno said. But it's too early to know the source of the outbreak, he said.

"We've just scratched the surface in our investigation," said Tim Casagrande, director of environmental health.

Health officers also are investigating four suspected cases of E. coli that do not appear connected to the parties, Casagrande said.

A Saint Agnes Medical Center spokeswoman said doctors saw six patients with E. coli symptoms between Thursday and Sunday. Two of the six were admitted and one remained in the hospital Tuesday, she said.

Moreno said people began showing up at emergency departments on May 21 with cramping pain and bloody diarrhea. Hospital laboratories reported results of E. coli tests to the county Friday and Saturday.

Symptoms of E. coli typically surface in two to three days from exposure, but can take up to eight days to appear.

Hospital tests showed the patients -- from toddlers to older adults -- had a strain of E. coli O157, Moreno said. County health officials suspect the strain is E. coli O157:H7, a more virulent form, but results confirming it will not be available from the state laboratory for at least another week.

E. coli O157:H7 can cause severe illness, including kidney failure. The young and elderly are most at risk from complications from the infection.

The toxin is the same as linked to last year's national outbreak of contaminated spinach that caused 205 illnesses and three deaths in 26 states and Canada.

A number of food sources are under scrutiny as a possible source of the E. coli outbreak that sickened the people this past week.

Casagrande said the ill people attended parties that included food from one company.

A meat product was common to the parties, Casagrande said.

Moreno said "our inspectors have inspected the Meat Market, but I cannot tell you details of what they found because that's still part of the investigation."

In addition to the purchased food, Casagrande said, people prepared other dishes.

Moreno said it does not appear at this time that there are retail food items threatening the health of county residents, and so no mandatory or voluntary recalls have been ordered.

"We don't feel the general public at this time is at risk," he said.

The way the food was prepared as well as the way it was stored also is being investigated, Casagrande said.

E. coli can live in the intestines of cattle, goats and sheep. Eating meat, especially ground beef that is undercooked, is a common source of infection, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Not including the six suspected cases from the past week, Fresno County has had six cases of E. coli cases thus far in 2007. Last year there were seven cases countywide. In 2005, 14 people became infected.

Moreno said anyone with symptoms of abdominal cramping and bloody diarrhea should see a doctor or go to a hospital.

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