CASES of a potentially deadly e-coli infection have trebled in the first half of this year with the Mid-West one of the worst affected areas, according to the HSE.
The health authority has set up an expert group to meet the challenge of the increase in VTEC e-coli infections.
An outbreak forced the temporary closure of a creche in the suburbs of Limerick last October and while the HSE has confirmed that a number of childcare facilities have also had to close their doors in response to the latest surge, they could not say whether any of the affected centres were in Limerick.
Over 210 cases of VTEC e-coli were reported in the first six months of the year, up from 69 during the corresponding period for 2010. Of these, almost one fifth were reported in Limerick, Clare or North Tipperary, which account for less than 10 per cent of the population.
The bug is not usually serious but can in a tiny minority of cases result in fatal complications, as Dr Patrick O’Sullivan, director of public health, HSE Mid-West explained.
“VTEC is a germ that can cause infection if swallowed and usually causes a mild illness. Most people recover completely without any problems. However, VTEC produces a toxin that may damage the bowel wall causing severe bloody diarrhoea,” Dr O’Sullivan said.
“In about five to eight per cent of cases, the infection causes a life-threatening complication called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS). In HUS the red blood cells are destroyed and kidney failure occurs. Up to nine per cent of people who develop HUS following VTEC infection die. HUS is more likely to occur in children aged under five and the elderly.”
Part of this year’s increase, he said, was explained by better lab testing methods and most of the cases have been in rural areas.
There is also the view that this year’s record rainfalls may have resulted in the contamination of water supplies in the countryside and contributed to the spike in cases.
The HSE advises careful handwashing after handling animals, using or assisting others to use the toilet and before and after the preparation and eating of food. Children should be supervised when washing their teeth and parents should also wash their hands after changing nappies.
Anyone with diarrhoea should stay away from work, school and especially childcare facilities and food premises until the diarrhoea has stopped for 48 hours. The HSE has also issued special advice to childcare workers and creche owners as part of its information campaign.