HSE warns public following big increase in E.coli infections

VTEC is a type of E.coli that can lead to serious complications

HSE warns public following big increase in E.coli infections

This high magnification, digitally-colourised picture shows a growing cluster of Escherichia coli bacteria | Image: CDC/ National Escherichia, Shigella, Vibrio Reference Unit at CDC

The Health Service Executive (HSE) has advised the public to take extra care when handling and preparing food, following an increase in the number of VTEC (E.coli) infections.

VTEC is a type of E.coli that can live in the gut of healthy cattle and sheep.

It is a common cause of food poisoning which can lead to serious complications.

The HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) is advising people to always wash their hands before and after handling food, wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating them and always ensure minced meats are cooked all the way through.

A study carried out in Ireland in 2013 showed that raw minced beef burgers and minced beef samples from retail and catering premises were contaminated with VTEC - which was detected in 2.5% of samples.

Eating meat - especially minced beef - that has not been thoroughly cooked all the way through to kill these bugs can cause food poisoning.

Minced meat burgers should be cooked to a core temperature of 75°C.

VTEC can also be found in the stools of an infected person and can be passed from person-to-person if hygiene or hand-washing habits are inadequate, the HSE says.

"This is particularly common among toddlers who are not toilet trained.

"Family members and playmates of these children are at high risk of becoming infected.

"Any vegetables or fruit that have been contaminated by animal faeces and which are not washed properly before consumption can also cause infection."

File photo of uncooked burgers

There have been 96 VTEC cases notified in Ireland in the past 10 days - over three-times as high as this time last year.

Dr Kevin Kelleher, assistant national director of public health at the HSE, said: "While investigations haven't identified a specific reason for the increase in cases we would like to remind people to be careful about food safety during this heatwave to protect themselves against food poisoning.

"This hot weather provides the right conditions for bacteria such as VTEC to grow and multiply on foods which can lead to high numbers of cases of food poisoning in adults and children.

"Not washing hands after handling raw meat, not washing fruits and vegetables and undercooking minced meats such as beef burgers are common ways of getting food poisoning at this time of year."

Symptoms of VTEC infection vary - but often include bloody diarrhoea and abdominal cramps.

Symptoms usually pass within five to 10 days.

However, VTEC infection can also cause a more serious complication called Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome (HUS) in up to 10% of cases - which can lead to kidney failure, and occasionally even death.

HUS is more common in children under five and the elderly.

  • It has listed four steps from SafeFood to prevent food poisoning:
    Clean - always wash your hands before and after preparing, handling and eating food, after visiting the toilet or after playing with pets or animals
  • Cook - make sure that food is cooked all the way through in order to destroy any harmful bacteria that might be present
  • Chill - keep food cool in order to prevent bad bacteria from growing: make sure that your fridge is at the correct temperature to keep cold foods chilled - aim to keep your fridge at 5°C or below
  • Separate to prevent cross-contamination - separate raw and cooked foods during storage and cooking and never let raw food, for example raw meat, come into contact with ready-to-eat foods such as salads