E.coli outbreak: Birmingham Public Health Lawyer issues key advice

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After a large number of people contract E.coli following an outbreak connected to a “nationally distributed food item", Sarita Sharma, an expert public health lawyer at Irwin Mitchell explains how the bacteria is transmitted and the measures people can take to reduce the risk of falling ill.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), along with other public health agencies, are investigating, at present, 113 cases across England, Wales and Scotland. It has been reported that around 37 of cases in England have been hospitalised.

The particular strain of E.coli being investigated is shiga toxin-producing escherichia coli (STEC) and is being linked to a single outbreak. The source of the outbreak has not yet been confirmed but numbers are expected to increase as further samples are tested. The reported cases range from people aged two to 79.

What is E.Coli?

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E. coli is a bacteria which can cause foodborne illnesses, leading to symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea - often bloody. Severe cases can lead to haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a condition which can even cause complete end-stage kidney failure.

How is it transmitted?

STEC can be transmitted through:

  • Consumption of food or water which has been contaminated with the bacteria.
  • Cross-contamination. If proper hygiene and handling practices are not followed, E.coli from contaminated foodstuff can spread to other surfaces, utensils, or foods, increasing the risk of further infections.
  • Having close contact with an infected person. Person to person spread can often result in multiple people in one household becoming infected.
  • Direct contact with an infected animal or its environment. STEC can be carried by cattle, sheep and other animals and can spread to humans through contact with animals or their faeces.

How to reduce the risk of infection

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of infection, as well as reducing the risk of spread to others:

· Wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap.

· Wash fruit and vegetables and ensure food is properly cooked. Follow hygiene measures such as ensuring surfaces, utensils and equipment have been cleaned with disinfectants before food preparation.

· You should not prepare food for others if you have symptoms of diarrhoea and vomiting.

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· Do not visit vulnerable, elderly and young people to avoid passing on the infection.

· Do not return to work, nursery or school until 48 hours after your symptoms have ceased.

What will happen now following this outbreak?

When an outbreak occurs, as can be seen by this particular incident, swift actions are taken by regulatory bodies such as the UKHSA to address the issue and protect consumers:

  • Investigation and identification: Regulatory authorities, such as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK, work closely with manufacturers, distributors, owners ,and retailers to identify the source of contamination and the specific products involved.
  • Product recalls: If contaminated products are identified, the FSA will usually issue a product recall, notifying the public and advising them to avoid consuming the affected products. Retailers cooperate by removing the products from their shelves and informing customers who may have purchased them.
  • Enhanced Hygiene and Safety Practices: manufacturers and suppliers are reminded to reinforce good manufacturing practices, including maintaining strict hygiene standards, implementing effective cleaning procedures, and conducting regular testing to ensure the absence of harmful bacteria like E. coli.

The need for robust safety measures

The recent outbreak highlights the importance of robust food safety measures. By promptly investigating and identifying the source of contamination, issuing product recalls, and emphasising hygiene and safety practices, regulatory bodies and industry stakeholders aim to protect consumers from the dangers associated with E.coli-contaminated food items.

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It’s vital for consumers to stay informed about product recalls and follow the guidance provided to ensure their safety and well-being.

Suppoting those affected by E.coli

Through my work in the public health team at Irwin Mitchell I too often see the devasting impact E.coli can have. It can lead to serious illness and in some cases death. While thankfully for many the symptoms pass in a relatively short period of time, for others they can lead to long-term complications.

They’re not only left needing answers regarding their illness but access to specialist care, support and rehabilitation to try and live with their ongoing symptoms.

At Irwin Mitchell we have a well-known history of supporting people affected by illness outbreaks from contaminated food including E.coli and other serious bacterial infections.

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We’re representing people who fell ill with E.coli at the turn of the year after an outbreak connected to contaminated cheese products and recall of Mrs Kirkham’s cheese products.

Other cases include an outbreak of salmonella at the Real China restaurant in Southampton and the Newcastle Spice Festival. The team has also notably acted for people who were seriously affected by the salmonella contamination in the Mr Porky pork scratchings recall in 2021 and the Cadburys salmonella outbreak in 2006 where Cadburys was fined £1m.

The team also specialises in package travel holiday cases where individuals have contracted E. Coli following consumption of food during their holidays to countries like Egypt and Turkey.

If you are suffering with symptoms, you should seek advice from a medical professional or call NHS 111.

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The UKHSA will publish further information and advice as the investigation continues.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people struck down by E.coli at the law firm’s dedicated public health section.