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Outbreak News

E. coli deadlier than strain from years past

December 22, 2005

Barbara LaBoe

The Daily News

The strain of E. coli that sickened 18 Lower Columbia residents is likely a stronger and deadlier version of the bacteria than even 25 years ago, according to Clark County's health officer.

Ever since health officials tentatively linked E. coli to raw milk from Woodland's Dee Creek Farm, health officials have heard from people who grew up on raw, or unpasteurized, milk and never had a problem. But, Dr.

Justin Denny of the Clark County Health Department said Wednesday that national E. coli researchers believe E. coli mutated in the early 1980s, making it stronger and multiplying the risk of infection.

"It changed into something more serious in the 1980s," said Denny, who is one of the county's lead officials handling the outbreak. "And we think there's more risk with that mutation."

Locally, Denny said he's seen some anecdotal evidence of that. Clark County had 25 cases of the most virulent strain of E. coli in 2005, compared to 18 in 2004, 16 in 2003 and 11 in 2002. There's no hard evidence tying that to a mutation, but Denny said it's certainly a possibility. Those numbers include E. coli cases from other things beside milk.

While E. coli can be deadly, Denny said the good news is that the last two hospitalized Clark County children are improving. One was moved from unstable critical to stable critical condition Wednesday, the other from critical to serious. That means they're still requiring dialysis because of kidney failure, but less of other types of support.

Denny said it's too soon to say what, if any, long-lasting effects await the children.

"The longer outcomes just aren't known because they've only been studying the mutation since the 1980s," he said. "They could have high blood pressure or continue to need dialysis, but so far, so good."

Health officials also have found no new cases of E. coli among the dairy's customers and believe the cycle should be just about complete. One of the

18 cases is believed to be a secondary case, meaning a child drank the milk, got E. coli and then passed it to a relative by not practicing good hygiene.

The possibility of secondary transmissions is one of the reasons Cowlitz County health officials took farms owners Anita and Michael Puckett to court to get access to their customer list. Officials warned that even someone who didn't experience serious symptoms could pass it to others by not washing hands thoroughly.

All told, 18 people -- mostly children 13 and younger -- got E. coli symptoms after they drank milk from the unlicensed diary; 10 in Clark County, five in Cowlitz County and three in Oregon's Clatsop County. Five children were hospitalized.

E. coli has been found in the farm's milk, but more detailed tests are still needed to match it exactly to the E. coli found in the 18 patients.

State labs said those tests could be completed next week.

Denny said raw milk advocates may feel maligned by recent county, state and federal warnings, but he said everyone needs to acknowledge the risks of raw milk while debating its merits.

In addition to E. coli, the heat of pasteurization also kills bacteria such as listeria and tuberculous. Statewide, one pregnancy a year is lost to listeria from raw milk, Denny said. And while the numbers of people who get sick from raw milk are relatively small, so is the overall number of people who drink it.

"Maybe the flavor (of pasteurized) milk isn't as good, but I sure wouldn't give raw milk to my 5-year-old," he said.

More on this outbreak: Dee Creek Farm E. coli Outbreak

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