Whooping cough, E. coli cluster in parts of state

Posted June 02, 2009, at 8:05 p.m.

Maine public health officials are on alert for new cases of whooping cough and E. coli food poisoning. Both potentially serious infectious diseases have emerged in Maine recently.

Seven cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, have been identified in Brewer, Hampden and Holden in the past month, according to the Web site of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The vaccine-preventable respiratory infection has affected individuals ranging in age from 9 months to 42 years. All are thought to have picked up the bacterium through contacts at area schools.

Efforts to track down people who have been in close contact with the sick individuals are under way. In some cases, those people may be started on antibiotics to ward off infection.

The illness associated with pertussis can last many weeks. It is spread through contact with respiratory droplets of infected people. Symptoms include episodes of intense coughing, sometimes followed by the characteristic “whoop” accompanying the in-drawn breath. A runny nose and a low fever may be present. Vomiting may occur in connection with the coughing episodes, and infants may develop a bluish color from lack of oxygen.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine CDC, said infants are most likely to develop severe, even life-threatening, symptoms.

“We worry the most about infants,” she said Tuesday. “Even if they’re up-to-date on their immunizations, they may not be fully immunized.”

It takes a series of six early childhood pertussis vaccine doses to reach full protection, she said, so if an infant is exposed, the chances of developing serious illness are great.

“They can get it very quickly, and the symptoms can be deadly,” Mills said.

Pertussis is treated with an antibiotic, which is more effective the earlier it is started. Infected people should stay home from school, work and other activities for at least five days after starting the antibiotic. Antibiotics also may be prescribed preventively for those who have been in close contact with infected individuals.

A new pertussis vaccine booster is available for people ages 10 to 64.

Farther south in Cumberland and York counties, seven cases of E. coli have been identified in the past month. E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is a bacterium found in raw or undercooked meats, contaminated water and other foods. Consuming the contaminated foods causes food poisoning, with symptoms including prolonged diar-rhea that may contain blood.

Complications of severe E. coli infection may include kidney failure.

The cases in Maine have not yet been tied to any common event, venue or specific food, but testing indicates that at least four of the seven cases are related to each other and to an emerging national outbreak, according to the Maine CDC.

Mills said most cases of E. coli in warm weather are caused by eating contaminated, undercooked hamburgers at backyard barbecues.

“I really hesitate to eat hamburgers off the grill; they tend to be undercooked,” she said. Burgers should be cooked until juices run clear and have no pink color in the center, she said. The internal temperature of the meat should be 160 degrees.

“I always barbecue with a thermometer,” Mills said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend careful handling of raw meats, especially ground beef. It says people should:

— Wash hands, cutting boards, utensils and other surfaces with warm, soapy water after handling raw meat.

— Use separate containers and cutting boards for cooked foods and raw meats, poultry and fish.

— Cook ground beef well, to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees. Color is not a safe indicator that beef is adequately cooked.

— Keep raw meat refrigerated.

— Do not return cooked meat to the same plate it was on before it was cooked.

— When eating out, return undercooked hamburger or other meat to the kitchen for more cooking. Ask for a clean plate and a different hamburger bun.

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