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Local E. coli outbreak has peaked, source of bacteria still unknown, say officials

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 17, 2011 - State health officials reported one new case of E. coli on Wednesday. They said that the infection rate had peaked and the state no longer would issue daily briefings about the outbreak.

The new case brought to 33 the number of confirmed E. coli infections attributed to the outbreak in the St. Louis area, said Jacqueline Lapine, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

She noted that the source of the bacteria continues to elude county, state and federal health officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has taken the lead in the investigation, which the St. Louis County Health Department and state health officials initially had handled. After finding no local source of the outbreak, health officials asked the federal Food and Drug Administration to take a look higher up in the food chain where suspected food was produced or processed. That investigation is continuing, Lapine said.

"We're now wrapping up a few lingering samples, and we're drawing that to a close," Lapine said. "But we will continue the investigation and work with the FDA in trying to find a source."

Rather than issuing written statements daily about the status of the investigation, she said the Department of Health would now post updates on its website. She urged people to visit the department's website if they are interested in tracking the investigation.

The CDC epidemiologist who is coordinating the St. Louis outbreak is Laura Gieraltowski. She told the Beacon that far more people often are sickened by food-borne illnesses than those identified during an investigation like the one in Missouri.

"For every case that gets tested, we estimate that 30 become ill and don't get tested," she said. "The illness may not be severe or they treat themselves at home and they feel fine."

Like others, she concedes it's possible that the source of the outbreak may never be determined. She added that she knew of no data showing the CDC's success rate in pinpointing outbreaks. Putting a number on cases solved would be difficult, she said, because the agency frequently follows numerous clusters and usually encounters "lots of road blocks" in finding the sources of the outbreaks.

The initial search for a source in Missouri focused on food that some, but not all, victims ate from salad bars at Schnucks' stores. Since early October, investigators say they have tested 55 food samples connected to the St. Louis outbreak and that none tested positive for E. coli, health officials said.

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.