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May 01, 2018

Protecting our children from E. coli as outbreak worsens

Examining the recent outbreak linked to romaine lettuce and tools for prevention

You have probably heard about the recent E. coli outbreak. Contaminated romaine lettuce from Arizona has been linked to more than 98 cases of E. coli infection in 22 states, with the most reported cases in Pennsylvania (18), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 46 people have been hospitalized with nine developing kidney failure. Thankfully, there have been no fatalities.

As soon as I heard about this outbreak, I racked my brain as to whether anyone in my family, especially my 19-month-old son, has eaten romaine lettuce recently. We eat a lot of vegetables in my family so I was immediately worried. Salads may not seem like a common food for toddlers,  but this outbreak most definitely poses a risk to our little ones. According to the CDC, the youngest person currently affected is 12 months old. A baby! Heartbreaking.

E. coli (Escherichia coli) is a large and diverse group of bacteria found in many places in the environment, in food or water and also in the intestines of people and animals. Some strains, like those found naturally inside us, are harmless. Others can make us really sick. Frequently E. coli spreads when someone eats contaminated food like undercooked ground beef, unpasteurized dairy products or juice, or produce grown in animal manure or rinsed in contaminated water.

The first case of E. coli illness from the Arizona-grown romaine lettuce was reported in mid-March and the number of infected cases has continued to grow in recent weeks. Signs of infection can appear quickly or up to a few days after ingestion. The symptoms for adults are the same ones to keep an eye out for in our kids: abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, tiredness and fever. If you spot any of these in your little ones or yourself call your doctor immediately. An E. coli infection can cause serious complications like urinary tract infections, pneumonia, blood infections, kidney failure and meningitis in newborns so it is important to seek attention right away if you are concerned that you or a member of your family could be infected. A physician can confirm whether or not you have contracted a strain of E. coli.

It is easy to pass an E. coli infection from person to person, so parents and caregivers need to be extra careful. If your child has an E. coli infection, you can help ensure he or she does not spread it to others. Keep your little one home from daycare or school until cleared by his or her pediatrician. Make sure your kid’s bottom is cleaned well when changing diapers or using the bathroom and always wash hands afterwards. While recovering, do not let your children swim in pools or go to waterparks.

In addition to protecting our littlest ones, expectant mothers also need to be safeguarded. The majority of those infected by the Arizona-grown contaminated lettuce are female and pregnant women are at an elevated risk for E. coli infection. Women who are expecting a baby have an altered immune system, allowing for mother and baby to coexist and get along within the same body. That can make it harder for pregnant women to fight off infections including harmful foodborne microorganisms. This is why expecting mothers are advised not to eat sushi, undercooked meat, raw eggs, unpasteurized dairy or lunchmeat. It is so important that all pregnant women take the advice and guidance from the CDC and avoid all romaine lettuce until otherwise announced. If you are pregnant and concerned that you may have eaten contaminated lettuce or are displaying any signs of an E. coli infection, contact your obstetrician and seek care immediately.

Hopefully, the contaminated lettuce situation out of Arizona will be contained and eliminated soon. But even once the CDC announces that romaine can be on your plate again it is important to understand how to protect yourself and your children from an E. coli infection. Since it is such a huge group of bacteria there are a lot of different ways to contract it. Experts recommend specific steps to prevent your family from being exposed to E. coli. Safe food preparation is one crucial step. That means cooking meat to its correct temperature, washing your hands and surfaces after handling raw animal products, and thoroughly washing produce before eating. Buy only pasteurized juice and dairy products. E. coli can also be easily spread between people, through unwashed hands so it is imperative to teach your children the importance of regular handwashing.

Touching farm animals at a petting zoo is another way to contract E. coli. We frequent a local farm because my son loves visiting and feeding the animals. I am always careful to wipe his hands with alcohol-free hand sanitizing wipes as soon as he is done feeding the horses and goats, especially since Killian sucks his thumb. I take his shoes off once he is in his car seat, just in case he decides to play with his feet that were just stomping around an animal pasture on the ride home. Whether we are just getting home from the petting zoo, the library or the grocery store, our first stop is always the kitchen sink where we both wash our hands with warm water and soap. E. coli worry or not, handwashing is the first defense to protecting my son and me from getting sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are advising Americans to discard all previously purchased romaine lettuce. Even if you already unknowingly ate some and did not get sick or if you are not sure if your lettuce is of the romaine variety, you should chuck it just to be safe. The CDC says all restaurants should stop serving romaine lettuce so even if your favorite place still has it on the menu, play it safe and do not order. Bottom line is that right now, make that Caesar salad with iceberg. And incorporate these general E. coli precautions and recommendations into your every day to keep our families safe from infection.

Is your family affected by the E. coli outbreak? Share your comments below or tweet me at @ThePhillyVoice and @KathleenEGagnon.

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