E. coli outbreak identified at setting in Mid-West region

The outbreak affected young children in a single setting.

THE DEPARTMENT OF Public Health has reiterated the importance of hand hygiene, and effective well water treatment, following an outbreak of a powerful strain of E.coli in the Mid-West region.

The HSE’s Public Health Mid-West said it is presently managing an outbreak of Verotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC) of young children in a single setting. The bacterium can cause serious illness and also affects the elderly.

“We can confirm that it is currently under control, and we would like to reassure the public that these isolated outbreaks do not affect the department’s work in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, or any other infectious disease in the region,” said a spokesman. 

VTEC can live in the gut of healthy cattle and sheep, but can be a source of food poisoning by producing a toxin that can cause inflammation of the bowel, which can lead to severe stomach cramps and bloody diarrhoea. 

The symptoms can last up to nine days, while some people may experience very mild or no symptoms at all.

VTEC is most commonly transmitted through contact with farm animals (including those in pet and open farms), untreated water from private wells person-to-person contact in creches or households where there are children under five years of age and through food and drinks that are contaminated with tiny amounts of faecal matter. 

VTEC is usually uncomplicated and most people recover without issue, treating it by drinking plenty of fluids.

It is known that antibiotics do not kill VTEC, but may increase the risk of Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome (HUS), leading to the destruction of red blood cells and kidney failure with some patients requiring intensive dialysis treatment.

VTEC can be particularly problematic as it can cause HUS in 5-10% of cases. 5% of people who develop this dangerous, life-threatening condition may die.

According to Public Health Mid-West, incidences of VTEC tend to be higher in warmer weather, particularly during the summer, however the annual case number is likely to be lower in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In the Mid-West, there were 128 cases in 2018, 130 in 2019 and provisionally 117 in 2020. 

“Ireland has one of the highest incidence rates of VTEC in Europe, and the Mid-West has one of highest incidence rates in Ireland. While VTEC can last in the system for as short as a week, it can sometimes take several months to clear the infection,” said Dr Rose Fitzgerald, Specialist in Public Health Medicine at Public Health Mid-West. 

Anyone who is infected, or is a close contact of a case requires clearance from a public health doctor to attend healthcare, childcare or work that involves food-handling.

“It’s a serious disease that can cause serious life-changing illness in young children and the elderly, and it underpins the importance of hand hygiene before and after preparing food, after contact with farm animals and their environment, and effective treatment and rehabilitation of private wells.

“We encourage everyone to avail of their respective council’s domestic well grant schemes to ensure that your private water supply is clean. This financial assistance could prevent serious illness and save a life,” added Dr Fitzgerald.

Local authority grant schemes for domestic well water in the Mid-West can be accessed here: Limerick City and County CouncilClare County Council and Tipperary County Council. 

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