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Published: Friday, 5/26/2006

At least 8 sickened by E. coli last month

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department is investigating an E. coli outbreak in Toledo last month that sickened at least eight people, with one small child still hospitalized with complications from the illness.

All the victims have recovered except for the child, a 5-year-old boy, though he's expected to be fine and will soon be released from the hospital, according to Karim Baroudi, supervisor of the department's food safety division.

With the unofficial start of the summer grilling season this weekend, Mr. Baroudi said the E. coli outbreak is a good reminder to the public to cook their hamburgers thoroughly and use good food-preparation techniques.

"We just assume there's E. coli on all beef," he said. "That's why we tell you to cook your meat thoroughly."

The source of illness in some of the E. coli victims is unclear, though five of the cases are linked to the consumption of raw meat used in a Middle Eastern dish called kibbe. The meat was purchased at a Middle Eastern meat market in Toledo. Mr. Baroudi would not identify the market because the investigation is still going on.

A state law passed three years ago allows gov-ernment officials to withhold from the public the identity of a restaurant, market, or other business suspected as a source of a disease outbreak until the conclusion of an investigation, which can take months.

However, Mr. Baroudi said the market was inspected and there's no danger to the public. He said the outbreak appeared to be a "one-time" incident.

He said those who got ill all became sick between April 19 and April 27. In one incident, a family of four from Toledo bought raw lamb from the market to be used in making kibbe and all four family members got sick. Another family bought raw lamb from the same market, but only one person - the 5-year-old boy - got sick; he's the one who was hospitalized but expected to recover.

The boy developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious condition that can occur after an E. coli infection and result in kidney failure. The syndrome must be reported to state health officials, which is what triggered the investigation last week by the local health department.

Mr. Baroudi said though it would be unusual for raw lamb to be a source of E. coli on its own, it's possible E. coli-tainted ground beef contaminated the area where the raw lamb was being stored.

Three other people, including a truck driver from Sandusky who often stops in Toledo to eat, also developed E. coli infections, but none of the three bought meat at the market in question.

The type of E. coli in this outbreak is a strain known as E. coli O157:H7. There are hundreds of different strains of E. coli. That one produces a toxin and can cause severe illness or death. It is generally associated with eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef.

E. coli O157:H7 cases are not unusual. Figures for last year show 149 cases in Ohio, 105 in 2004, 132 in 2003, and 154 in 2002. Nationwide, about 73,000 such cases and about 60 deaths are reported annually.

The strain is the same type suspected in an E. coli outbreak last fall in Toledo that killed one person and sickened 14 others.

Public health officials, including local, state, and federal experts, have been investigating that outbreak since September.

A preliminary report from the Ohio Department of Health released last month indicated that a Toledo caterer is suspected as the source of the outbreak. The identity of that caterer hasn't yet been released pending completion of a final report.

Contact Luke Shockman at:

lshockman@theblade.com

or 419-724-6084.



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