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E. coli cases confirmed in Boone County

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 4, 2011 - State health officials confirmed late Thursday that three E. coli cases have been found in Boone County. They said a specimen from a fourth suspected case was under review. These newly disclosed cases do not appear to be connected to the E. coli outbreak in the St. Louis area, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

The agency also lowered the number of confirmed cases growing out of the St. Louis outbreak. Late Wednesday, officials had said the number stood at 26. But late Thursday, they said four of the 26 were unrelated to the St. Louis outbreak.

The agency added that investigators had found two new cases, bringing to 24 the number of confirmed E. coli cases that have turned up so far in the St. Louis investigation. Officials did not say immediately where the Boone County cases were found or how. They only said the cases were confirmed from specimens sent to the state lab.

By Thursday morning, investigators had tested several food samples thought to be connected to the St. Louis outbreak. Most or all of those samples were taken from salad bars at Schnucks' stores. On Tuesday night, investigators took an additional 38 food samples from five of those stores in response to information gathered from patient interviews. All preliminary tests were negative for E. coli in those samples, state health officials said. They added that further testing was being done to confirm the preliminary findings.

The inquiry has involved a combination of lab reviews of potentially contaminated samples along with interviews of those sickened and those who have not been affected. Part of the interview process is being handled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is contacting residents in neighborhoods where E. coli victims have been identified as well as those who have not been affected by the outbreak. This process will help investigators compare data from participants in an effort to find the source of the outbreak, CDC officials say.

In addition to help from CDC, local and state investigators are now being assisted by the Food and Drug Agency. It was asked to join the inquiry and inspect the distribution chain because some of the suspected products came from distributors or producers from outside Missouri, state officials said.

Local and state public health officials are urging consumers to take certain precautions. These include seeking medical attention if they experience severe stomach cramps, diarrhea or nausea. In addition, they are urged to wash all produce thoroughly with water before eating it, cook meat thoroughly before consuming it, and wash their hands after using the restroom. Other food safety tips are available at www.health.mo.gov.

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.