Saturday, June 11, 2011

Food-Borne Disease

The deadly outbreak of E. coli in Europe sounds a wake-up call for all of us. Over the course of just a couple weeks, the death toll has reached 33, with about 3,100 sickened by the bacterium carried on food.

One of the problems has been identifying which food to avoid. Investigators have bounced around from tomatoes to cucumbers to lettuce to bean sprouts — at first suspecting each of those as the source of the disease, then later dismissing them. Now, it appears that they are back to pointing toward the bean sprouts as the culprit.

The uncertainty wreaked havoc with the food industry, as customers abandoned first one type of food and then another, leaving farmers unable to market their crops. In addition to the damage that was done to human health, there was enormous damage to the European economy from this little "epidemic."

I say "little" because, devastating as it is to the individuals and families involved, the numbers are puny by comparison with other disease outbreaks that historically killed millions. Nevertheless, it is still a serious problem when officials can't even put their fingers on what is causing the disease.

Hospitals in Hamburg, Germany (seemingly the epicenter of the outbreak), have been overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses are working around the clock trying to keep up with the influx of patients.  More than 700 of the patients are suffering from not only diarrhea and cramps, but have developed life-threatening complications that can lead to kidney failure, paralysis and epileptic seizures. Hundreds of patients are in intensive care. These patients need round-the-clock medical care, working the medical staff and also the hospital cleaning staff to exhaustion.

One of the surprising things about this illness is who it has affected. In a statement by Marc Voss, a senior internist at Regio Clinic Elmshorn, "It has been very stressful for all of us because we are dealing predominantly with younger patients without significant previous diseases." About 77% of patients are women, the majority of them between 20 and 50 years old, most are physically fit and live healthy lifestyles.

How can that be? It's easy to understand when we consider that this particular outbreak of E. coli has been carried on vegetables. The young, health-conscious, physically fit are likely to be eating a diet that includes a lot of vegetables — so they were a prime target.

Does that mean we should avoid eating vegetables? Not at all. In fact, most E. coli outbreaks arrive on meats that have been contaminated during processing. And dairy foods are often carriers of salmonella. So unless you give up eating altogether, there's always a possibility that the food you buy (even organic) might be contaminated.

The solution? Double wash everything. Use a vegetable cleanser such as GSE (grapefruit seed extract) mixed with water in a spray bottle and sprayed onto the food while washing. It's a good idea to wash the outside of fruits and veggies even though you're going to discard the peel (melon, oranges, bananas, etc.) to prevent accidental transfer of contaminants from the outside to the inside.

In this day, when we import so much produce from across the country or around the world, it's a good idea to be especially cautious. But even if you buy all your produce from local farms, that is no guarantee against disease outbreak. For those folks in Germany, the produce came from a local organic farm.

One additional lesson we can take from this incident is how quickly the hospital system can become overwhelmed by even a relatively minor catastrophic event. When something BIG comes along, we won't be able to depend on local medical care or other normal community services. We need to obtain as much training as possible so we are more capable of handling our own situation, insofar as possible. Some crises are clearly beyond our ability to handle without outside help, but we should do as much as we can without depending on the community to take care of us.

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