E. coli: rare cases, but dangerous complications

The bacterium Escherichia coli that caused the wave of infection associated with Buitoni pizza in France is not the main cause of food poisoning, but it can cause very serious cases, especially in children.

– The ubiquitous bacterium –

E. coli, known as E. coli, actually belongs to a whole family of bacteria, which are far from all dangerous to health.

On the contrary, they are present in large quantities in the digestive system, where some of them play a role in the proper functioning of the body.

But some varieties of E. coli can, on the contrary, cause poisoning. Most often these are varieties that “produce shigatoxin”, as in the case of the recent wave of infection in France.

These toxins cause intoxication, which in most cases is not serious and mainly leads to abdominal pain and diarrhea. They usually occur three to four days after ingestion.

– What danger? –

While these intoxications usually resolve without injury in about ten days, they can rarely cause complications, especially in young children and the elderly.

The most common is “hemolytic uremic syndrome” (HUS). This usually leads to acute kidney failure and serious blood problems with potential consequences of coma or death.

“It is estimated that in 10% of patients, E. coli infection (producing) shigatoxins can progress to HUS with a mortality rate of 3 to 5%,” summarizes the World Health Organization (WHO).

Treatment has not yet been determined. Two synthetic antibodies, eculizumab and ravulizumab, are promising but require confirmation.

In any case, you should not prescribe antibiotics to a patient infected with E. coli bacteria that produce shigatoxins: they have no interest in them and may even aggravate the situation.

– How do you catch him? –

This form of E. coli “is transmitted to humans primarily through contaminated food such as raw or undercooked minced meat and raw milk,” the WHO explains.

But that’s not all: “More and more outbreaks are being attributed to the consumption of fruits and vegetables – germinated seeds, spinach, lettuce, raw cabbage, salads,” she continues.

One element is critical: temperature. If it reaches 70°C, the bacteria are destroyed, which means that you need to take care of good cooking.

However, the recent wave of morbidity raises questions, especially in families of sick children. Health authorities have linked some of these contaminants to Buitoni brand frozen pizza.

How could these frozen meals retain the incriminated bacteria? We don’t know yet.

“We are exploring various hypotheses to find out how the infection could have occurred despite the pizza being cooked,” epidemiologist Gabrielle Jones of Public Health France told France Inter.

“It could be the handling of raw pizza,” she says.

– It is a rarity? –

There are regular recalls of foods that have been found to contain dangerous E. coli bacteria, but serious or fatal cases remain relatively rare.

With two dead children and around forty confirmed cases so far, the current epidemic is already unprecedented in France.

Among foodborne infections, salmonellosis and listeriosis cause significantly more deaths. The former in particular is responsible for several hundred deaths each year in France.

At the level of the whole of Europe, the worst outbreak of E. coli infection dates back to 2011. In total, about fifty people died, especially in Germany and Sweden.

This epidemic also highlights the image, often widespread, of an infection mainly associated with poor cooking of meat. It was indeed due to infected germinated seeds.

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