Georgia E. Coli Outbreak Prompts CDC Investigation

By Amir Khan on June 8, 2012 11:37 AM EDT

E. Coli
The Centers for Disease Control is investigating an outbreak of E. coli (pictured) right in its own backyard (Photo: Creative Commons)

The Centers for Disease Control is investigating an outbreak of E. coli right in its own backyard. Five people have recently come down with the illness, ranging in age between 18 and 52, centered around Atlanta, where the CDC's headquarters is located, and in the surrounding areas.

E. coli is a bacteria spread through contaminated food products. Symptoms include diarrhea, which can be bloody, and abdominal cramps with little or no fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms generally last a week but can be more serious in children and the elderly.

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Investigators said they are unclear what is causing the outbreak.

"At this time, we continue to interview new cases as we are notified of them," Nicole Price, spokeswoman for Georgia's Department of Public Health, told ABC News. We have detected no food items or environmental exposures that are statistically associated with illness at this time. This investigation is ongoing."

Most recently, a 21 month old baby died from the illness -- Maelan Elizabeth Graffagnini died last Thursday in New Orleans after contracting the illness from an unknown source. Two others tested positive for the same E. coli strain, known as 0145.

Many E. coli stains are not dangerous, but some, such as 0145, produce a deadly toxin known as shiga, which can lead to kidney failure and death. 

"It is something that public health takes seriously any time we have any type of cluster of illness," Dave Palmer, Georgia public health spokesman, told North Georgia News. "We want to take that seriously and investigate it and try and stop it as quickly as possible."

Medical expenses, lost productivity, death, and other costs from E. coli total $6.9 billion annually, according to the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a nonprofit organization that seeks to educate the public about food safety.

Although the cause is unknown, investigators said the likely culprit is undercooked ground beef. April through September is "high-prevalence season" for E. coli, they said.

""The likely exposure is a food source," Louisiana Department of Health spokesman Tom Gasparoli told ABC News. "But this has yet to be confirmed. Often, the contact source is not found."

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