June 2nd, 2011
04:02 PM ET
Three people in the United States likely have been stricken by the same strain of E. coli that’s killed 16 people in Europe, according to an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Samples from the patients are on their way to a CDC lab in Atlanta, Georgia, for testing, Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, told CNN. The patients have traveled recently to Germany, and all three have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially deadly kidney disease and a complication of E. coli infection.
“We consider them to likely be part of the European outbreak,” Tauxe said. “We’re expecting the strains to arrive here any time now.”
He declined to say where the three patients are in the United States but they are hospitalized. Infectious disease experts say there’s no reason for Americans to panic, as the bacteria hasn’t been found in food in the country, and the disease rarely is passed person to person.
There have been 499 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in the current European outbreak, according to the World Health Organization. That’s more cases of HUS than in any other outbreak ever worldwide, according to an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By comparison, there were 120 cases of HUS in the world’s largest outbreak of E. coli in Japan in 1996, Tauxe said.
It’s not known why there have been so many cases of HUS with the current strain, called O104:H4. Tauxe said it’s possible this strain produces more toxins than other strains.
Doctors in Europe and the United States do not give antibiotics to patients with E. coli infections, since studies have shown it can actually make the disease worse.
“It seems that antibiotics make the bacteria explode, and the toxins inside get spit out and wreak havoc,” said Dr. Buddy Creech, assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
There’s no other treatment to fight the bacteria.
“All we can do is give patients pain medications or put them on ventilators or dialysis if they need it,” said Dr. Robert Steele, a pediatrician at St. John’s Children’s Hospital in Springfield, Missouri. “We can’t treat the actual problem. We just wait for the body to heal itself.”
“All you can do is monitor patients and hope for the best,” Creech added.
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