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Utah health officials investigate rise in E. coli cases

Visits to corn mazes, petting zoos, farms may be to blame

FILE - This 2006 colorized scanning electron micrograph image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a strain of the Escherichia coli bacteria.
FILE - This 2006 colorized scanning electron micrograph image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a strain of the Escherichia coli bacteria.
Janice Carr, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Health officials are investigating an increase in E. coli infections throughout Utah.

The spread of fecal bacteria might be coming from petting zoos, corn mazes and farms that are popular this time of year.

Since Oct. 1, 20 cases have been reported along the Wasatch Front and central and southwestern regions of the state. The caseload is higher than the usual 13 E. coli infections reported to the Utah Department of Health the past five Octobers, according to Kenneth Davis, an epidemiologist with the health department.

"An average of 113 (Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli) cases and 25 hospitalizations are reported each year in Utah," he said. "This increase in October is higher than normally expected."

He said cases range in age from 10 months to 71 years and 11 are younger than 18. Six people have been hospitalized, but no deaths due to the bacterial infection have been reported.

Several of the ill individuals, the health department reports, have visited places where they might have had contact with contaminated food or water, raw milk and cattle, or contact with the feces of infected people.

"People visiting petting zoos and areas where cattle have been are at greater risk of contracting E. coli, especially if they are not practicing good hand hygiene," a health department release states.

Symptoms of E. coli typically show up three to four days after exposure and include stomach cramps, vomiting and often bloody diarrhea. Conditions improve after about a week, but some infections can be more severe or even life-threatening, leading to kidney failure.

Young children and the elderly are most at risk of serious illness, but the health department warns even healthy children and adults can become seriously ill following E. coli infection.

Proper hand-washing before and after food preparation, using the bathroom and changing diapers, or after touching animals or places where feces are present can help to reduce chances of getting and spreading the potentially harmful and incredibly contagious infection.

The health department also cautions people with diarrhea to stay home from work or school, specifically food handlers, health care workers and child care providers. It also advises food safety, including cleaning, storing and cooking food properly, as well as avoiding unpasteurized dairy and juice products.

It is also important to not swallow water where people sit, such as lakes, ponds, streams and swimming pools of any kind.

There is no treatment for E. coli — antibiotics and anti-diarrheal medications could make symptoms more severe.

Officials ask that anyone with symptoms persisting beyond three days or that are accompanied by a high fever, blood in the stool, or excessive vomiting, to contact a health care provider.

E. coli is a bacteria that lives inside the intestines of humans and animals. Infections are required to be reported to the health department, which monitors the spread of disease.

For more information, visit health.utah.gov/epi/diseases/ecoli.