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New vaccine may block E. coli infection

A new vaccine offers hope for quickly controlling an outbreak of E. coli, the deadly food poisoning bacteria that forced the recall last year of millions of pounds of beef.

Scientists at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., reported Monday that a preliminary study using 87 volunteers showed that the vaccine causes an immune reaction that could protect against infection by E. coli O157."This is still very early in the research," said Dr. Dwayne F. Alexander, director of the institute on child health and human development, one of the National Institutes of Health. "This is the first human study of this proposed vaccine."

He said the important finding is that the vaccine produced a level of antibody in the volunteers that could kill E. coli O157 in the test tube.

"We don't know yet if it will kill the bacteria in the body," he said.

Alexander said the next step is tests to determine if the vaccine will prevent E. coli O157 infection in cattle, which are thought to be the most common source of the infection.

Results of the preliminary study are published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

E. coli O157 is a deadly, new strain of bacteria that can contaminate beef, fruit juice and other foods, causing severe food poisoning symptoms, including bloody diarrhea and damaged kidneys. People can also become infected by swimming in lakes or rivers contaminated with the organism.

Children are most seriously affected by the infection. An estimated 20,000 Americans are poisoned by E. coli O157 annually and about 250 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An outbreak in Japan last year infected more than 10,000 people in just two months.

Last year, millions of pounds of ground beef in the United States were destroyed after tests showed the beef was contaminated with E. coli. The organism also has been found in fruit and fruit juices.

E. coli is spread most frequently from cattle manure that can get into meat during butchering or onto fruits or vegetables in the field. Water runoff from pastures where there are infected cattle can contaminate rivers and lakes.

E. coli is formally known as Escherichia coli, named for Theodor Escherich, a German bacteriologist who first isolated it 111 years ago. A benign form of the organism lives in the human gut, where it is essential for proper digestion.

Researchers believe that some genes of a dangerous virus, called shigella, were transferred into E. coli during a shigella epidemic in Central America in the 1970s.