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E. Coli Cases on the Rise

CDC report shows cases of other foodborne illnesses holding steady or decreasing

THURSDAY April 12, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- A new government report on foodborne illnesses shows that the number of E. coli infections in the United States has inched upwards in the past two years.

During a Thursday teleconference on the findings, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding said the recent increase in E. coli infections has been caused primarily by the contamination of fresh produce, with the most notable outbreak occurring in 2006 after spinach grown in California fields sickened 205 people and killed three.

In the past, E. coli infections were primarily associated with hamburger, and government and industry efforts had largely contained that particular public health threat, she explained.

"We need ongoing work to reduce the exposure of our produce to E. coli and attention from the farm to the table of the handling and processing of those food items," Gerberding said.

The data on foodborne illnesses was culled from the CDC's Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, known as FoodNet.

"This system collects information from 10 states about diseases that are caused by organisms usually transmitted through food," Gerberding explained. This latest report compares data from 1996 to 1998 with data from 2006.

While no actual totals were provided, CDC officials said the data indicated that the incidence of E. coli infections has increased slightly, to 3.4 per 100,000 people in 2006, while the incidence of salmonella remained unchanged, at 6.09 per 100,000 people. The number of Vibrio infections, which are caused by eating raw shellfish, increased 78 percent between 1998 and 2006, mostly because more people are eating raw shellfish, Gerberding said. Vibrio infections are at a current rate of .34 per 100,000 people.

Although there has been little change in the number of salmonella cases, Gerberding said, "poultry continue to be contaminated with salmonella, and anytime we have improper food handling or preparation, there is a chance for exposure. This is the cause of the ongoing concern with salmonella infections."

The CDC had hoped that the incidence of E. coli infections would also decrease, or at least level off. However, the development of different sources for the infection instead lead to an increase in cases in the past two years.

"What was going to be an improvement in E. coli in 2003 is no longer evident. In fact, we are seeing a reversal in the trend for E. coli," Gerberding said. "Another not-so-good-news-perspective is that Vibrio infections have increased."

"As recent outbreaks have shown, too many people in the United States are getting sick each year from foodborne illnesses," Gerberding said in a statement. "For instance, the outbreaks involving tomatoes, lettuce and spinach underscore the need to prevent the contamination of produce. We're also working to strengthen our ability to quickly detect and identify foodborne illnesses. We know the faster we can detect an outbreak, the faster we can take actions that will help protect people."

The CDC data did show a decline in confirmed cases of Campylobacter, Listeria, Shigella and Yersinia, Gerberding noted, "although most of the decline happened in the past, and the rate of decline is not as great now as it was before."

More information

For more information on foodborne illnesses, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: April 12, 2007, press conference with Julie Gerberding, M.D., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; April 15, 2007, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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