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What is the severe kidney disease facing some kids affected by Calgary E. coli outbreak?

An infectious diseases specialist says there are ways to help prevent the spread of E. coli.

Health officials have now confirmed E. coli cases in 11 Calgary-area daycares. (Getty)
Health officials have now confirmed E. coli cases in 11 Calgary-area daycares. (Getty)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Canadian health experts are warning about a "very serious bug" that sent dozens to the hospital after an outbreak in Calgary, Alta.

An E. coli outbreak has been declared in nearly a dozen Calgary (and area) daycares and the Alberta Health Services (AHS) has now confirmed 310 cases linked to the outbreak.

In addition to the E. coli infections, public health officials also reported 21 children were diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a severe illness caused by the bacteria.

The cluster in Calgary likely relates to a foodborne outbreak, according to an infectious diseases specialist, who explained the bacteria strain is a Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.

"It can make somebody extremely sick… so this is a very serious bug," Dr. Donald Vinh told Yahoo Canada.

Read on for everything you need to know about the bacteria and the HUS illness.

What is hemolytic uremic syndrome?

According to Mayo Clinic, HUS is a condition that can occur when the small blood vessels in your kidneys become damaged and inflamed.

"This damage can cause clots to form in the vessels. The clots clog the filtering system in the kidneys and lead to kidney failure, which could be life-threatening," the clinic stated.

The most common cause of HUS is infection with certain strains of E. coli, and it's most common among young children.

Medical form with diagnosis Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS).
Medical form with diagnosis Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS).

The Mayo Clinic listed the following changes in symptoms for HUS:

  • Loss of colour in the skin

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Easy bruising

  • Unusual bleeding, including from the nose and mouth

  • Decreased urination or blood in urine

  • Swelling of the legs, feet or ankles, or less commonly, other parts of the body

  • Confusion, seizures or stroke

  • High blood pressure

What is Shiga toxin-producing E. coli?

The Shiga toxin-producing E. coli can cause severe food poisoning. (Getty)
The Shiga toxin-producing E. coli can cause severe food poisoning. (Getty)

According to the World Health Organization, E. coli are bacteria that normally live harmlessly in the guts of humans and animals, but there are strains of E. coli that can cause illness in people.

One of those strains is the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, which can cause severe food poisoning.

"The farming conditions can sometimes lead to one infected animal excreting (E. coli) out through its intestines into feces, which then contaminates the food or the water or is directly eaten by other animals," said Vinh.

The McGill University Health Centre infectious diseases specialist said eating undercooked or raw meat can lead to illness, but it's not the only source where people can come into contact with E. coli.

It can also be caused by:

  • drinking contaminated or untreated water

  • eating contaminated raw fruits or vegetables

  • drinking raw or unpasteurized milk

  • improper food handling

  • surface contamination

What are the symptoms of E. coli contamination?

Shiga toxin-producing E. coli can cause bloody diarrhea or kidney damage, and while these complications may occur more frequently in kids than adults, Vinh says it's not rare in adults.

"I don't want people to think that this is only a kid's disease because it definitely isn't," he added.

woman with stomach ache, menstrual period cramp, abdominal pain, food poisoning Those infected with E. coli may experience nausea, vomiting, headache, severe stomach cramps. (Getty)
Those infected with E. coli may experience nausea, vomiting, headache, severe stomach cramps. (Getty)

Symptoms appear within one to 10 days after exposure to E. coli bacteria, according to the agency, and most symptoms end within five to 10 days.

But some people may experience a more serious illness that will require hospital care, claimed Vinh, especially if the person is suffering from bloody diarrhea.

"The Shiga toxin-producing E. coli can go out into the bloodstream and it can cause a lot more damage, including damage to the kidneys. It can damage the red blood cells and the platelets," said Vinh.

This can lead to the development of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

What is hemolytic uremic syndrome?

According to Mayo Clinic, HUS is a condition that can occur when the small blood vessels in your kidneys become damaged and inflamed.

"This damage can cause clots to form in the vessels. The clots clog the filtering system in the kidneys and lead to kidney failure, which could be life-threatening," the clinic stated.

The most common cause of HUS is infection with certain strains of E. coli, and it's most common among young children.

The first symptoms are similar to that of E. coli infection, but when damage of blood vessels occurs, leading to anemia, it can lead to blood clots and damage to the kidneys.

How do you treat E. coli infection?

There is no medical treatment for E. coli infections, Vinh said.

The majority of people who get infected generally get better on their own, though some may develop complications.

"All we do is recommend that people become vigilant," said Vinh. "So people who may get dehydrated, they'll have to drink plenty of fluids with electrolytes or they need to get intravenous fluids."

Those who require hospitalization end up getting other types of treatments, especially if the toxin begins to cause damage to the kidneys.

Treatment for HUS, according to Mayo Clinic, involves "replacing lost fluids and minerals to make up for the kidneys not removing fluids and waste as well as usual. It also might involve getting nutrition through a vein."

Patients may also receive a blood transfusion while in hospital and be placed on medication to lower blood pressure and prevent or slow down further kidney damage, Mayo Clinic explained. Worse cases might see treatment include a kidney dialysis, a plasma exchange or even a kidney transplant if damage from HUS is too severe.

How to protect yourself and your children from E. coli infection?

A mother is helping her small daughter washing vegetables and encouraging her for healthy eating.
It's important people wash and cook their food properly. (Getty)

Vinh explained since E. coli lives in the intestines of animals, and can even be found in fruits and vegetables, it's important people make sure they're washing and cooking their food properly.

"The reality is that fruits and vegetables can be easily contaminated by soil or by manure or by feces of an infected animal. So if it sits in your fruits and vegetables, you could eat that bacteria and then you can get sick," said Vinh.

Meat must also be properly cooked, especially ground meats that include things like intestines that may have been contaminated.

"If it's not adequately cooked, the bacteria can thrive in there," said Vinh. "Inadequately cooked burgers is one of the most common ways that you can get Shiga toxin-producing E. coli."

If it's not adequately cooked, the bacteria can thrive in there.Dr. Vinh

According to Canada Health, ground beef and pork should be cooked at a temperature of 71 degrees Celsius while poultry is recommended to be cooked at 74 degrees Celsius.

Vinh also recommended people leave their fruits, vegetables or meats in a cool place because E. coli thrives in hot temperatures. If people go on picnics, for example, they must not put all of their food in one basket under the sun.

"Those temperatures, as well as closed spaces, allow for contamination between different foods," said Vinh. "And the warm temperatures actually favors the bacteria to grow even faster."

He also said proper hygiene is key in preventing the spread of E. coli and that parents need to teach their children to always wash their hands before eating.

"Soap and water is really the ideal situation… Clean cutlery, clean tables, all of that is gonna be very important to prevent this from happening."

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