E. Coli breakout

Daniel Dawson | Contributing Writer

When the Cleveland County Fair in Shelby, N.C. ended on October 7, it left some patrons with more than good spirits and funnel cake. Thirty-eight fairgoers had been infected with a harmful strain of the E. coli bacterium, which has already killed a two-year-old victim.

This outbreak is reminiscent of similar ones at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh this time last year, the multi-state infection that occurred this past June, as well as the spinach epidemic in September of 2006.  These E. coli outbreaks are raising questions about food regulation and safety. With outbreaks occurring years and months after each other, how can we-or is it even possible to-prevent repeated infections?

While the sources of this year’s outbreak are still under investigation, last year’s cause seems to be the livestock kept at the state fair. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases says a contracted E. coli infection “occurs when people consume contaminated foods or liquids.” The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) explains how transmission can also happen when thorough hand washing is neglected, especially after coming in direct contact with an infected person or animal. It appears that this reasoning is the basis of epidemiologists’ conclusions from last year’s outbreak as well. Perhaps similar occurrences spurred this year’s infection, however, it is impossible to conclude while investigations are still underway. 

Among the E. coli buzz in North Carolina, another infectious disease festers in recent headlines: meningitis. The state is one of fifteen, as recent data from the NC Department of Health and Human Services shows, where confirmed cases of this disease have been documented. Two in-state infections are a result of a contaminated steroid shot for back pain. 257 non-fatal cases originating from the shot that came from Framingham, Massachusetts in states from Idaho to Florida.

This particular epidemic is from a kind of fungal meningitis. The disease can also be transmitted through bacteria, a virus, or other means, and causes inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord when the cerebrospinal fluid is infected. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists tell tale symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light, and a stiff neck as possible signs of an infection. If left untreated, the bacterial strain can be fatal. This more severe meningococcal infection is spread through droplets in the air, or by kissing, sharing drinks, silverware, and even cigarettes. This is why schools-particularly large colleges and universities-are prime locations for outbreaks.

While the effects of the disease can prove harmful, vaccinations are available to prevent contraction. At UNCW, the Abrons Student Health Center (SHC) provides a Bacterial Meningitis vaccine for an additional fee of $95 on a walk-in basis. First-year students are required to receive the meningococcal vaccine upon entering UNCW and most other colleges, where residence halls and dormitories are optimal locations for the bacteria to spread. The SHC resource is important for students who had been given the vaccine earlier and need it renewed. Infection should be virtually impossible for students who have the vaccine and practice general, healthy behaviors.

The spread of infections can be contained, but it is largely due to the behaviors and responsibilities of those who come in contact with the infected persons or organisms. Recurring infections and outbreaks are appearing by means of human error or carelessness, but also the natural unpredictability of the diseases. By examining the past epidemics and maximizing one’s personal preventive manners, each infection’s impact can be subsequently lessened.