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TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2007

Officials probe 14 E. coli cases in North Alabama

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Public health officials are trying to find the source of 14 cases of E. coli that have been confirmed in North Alabama in the past week, including seven Monday, most apparently linked to a Huntsville restaurant.

Debra Williams, assistant health officer for Madison County, said seven cases were reported over the July 4 holiday and the department received confirmation of at least seven additional cases Monday morning. Three were described as severe enough to threaten kidney damage, and more cases are expected to be confirmed.

Williams said it was the first outbreak of E. coli in Alabama in more than two decades. The foodborne illness often leads to cramps, bloody diarrhea and occasionally to kidney failure.

All of the reported cases were in Madison County and the victims range from ages 5 to 48, she said.

Williams said most of the patients sickened by the bacteria ate at Little Rosie's Taqueria in Huntsville, but the precise source of the bacteria had not been pinned down. She said the restaurant had "some temperature and generalized problems" at its June 29 inspection.

At least three of the patients with confirmed cases did not eat at the Huntsville restaurant, she said.

Three state health officials were dispatched to help with the "constant interviewing" that could last for weeks as more positive cultures come in as expected, Williams said.

"What they're going to ask about now is things like, 'did you have lettuce?' Because what we have been asking is 'did you eat the chicken tacos or beef tacos?' and we haven't found any links," she said. "Now it's going to be 'Did you have cheese? Did you take off the tomatoes?' "

Williams said local doctors who treated the first patients alerted county health officials, who confirmed the cases Friday. They then began the investigation, interviewing the patients and conducting inspections at area restaurants, she said.

State epidemiologist Dr. J.P. Lofgren said there were 30 E. coli cases in the state last year, but they were all unrelated. An outbreak occurs when multiple people contract the illness from the same exposure.

"It's associated in cattle in general. A cow's colon can be nicked during butchering, and if bacteria in the intestine gets on the meat it can become contaminated," Lofgren said while on his way to Huntsville to help in the investigation.

"So a big source of E. coli traditionally has been meat, but it can be apple juice ... anything that has come in contact with the bacteria."

Williams said this was the first outbreak in Alabama in her 23-year career.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was estimated in 1999 that about 73,000 people in the United States got sick each year from E. coli with about 60 deaths from the disease. But it's believed that the number of illnesses and deaths has been dropping since then.

Along with interviewing the patients, health officials searched a warehouse where supplies for Little Rosie's and several of its sister restaurants are stored. She said nothing was found amiss at the warehouse or the other restaurants.

Tod Craig, owner of Little Rosie's, said health inspectors arrived at the business Friday afternoon and "were in the restaurant for a good hour or so watching our procedures and they could not find anything that we were doing wrong."

"We pride ourselves on food handling and sanitation," Craig said. "We're now looking at if there's anything more we can do to be even more safe. We're looking to see what we can do differently to be that much better."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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