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Report: E. coli in New Orleans Floodwater

Exposure May Pose Risk to Health

WebMD Health News

Sept. 6, 2005 - A New Orleans official reports that E. coli bacteria have been found in the floodwaters of New Orleans, according to CNN.

Though this hasn't been confirmed, it would be of no surprise given the health circumstances in the area. E. coli bacteria are found in abundance in human stool.

So what does it mean now that E. coli has reportedly been found?

What is E. coli?

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a bacterium that normally lives in the intestines of people and animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless. They are simply part of the normal intestinal bacteria. However, there are some kinds of E. coli that are capable of causing disease.

Depending on the type of E. coli, symptoms of infection most commonly include severe, potentially bloody, diarrhea. A particular strain, called E. coli 0157:H7, produces a powerful toxin that can cause a potentially deadly infection with bloody diarrhea and kidney failure.

Other symptoms include fever, feeling very ill, severe dehydration, and abdominal cramps.

Who is most likely to get E. coli?

Although E. coli can cause disease in people of any age, it severely strikes the very young (children under age 5) and the elderly. Infection usually appears within 24 hours of ingesting the bacteria.

What causes E. coli infection?

E. coli infection is caused by coming in contact with contaminated food or water. Therefore, conditions such as in the New Orleans area would be ripe for such an infection.

Infection can also occur after swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water.

Though unusual, previous outbreaks of E. coli have occurred at water parks where children have become ill from swimming in contaminated water as well as large gatherings where people have come in contact with contaminated food.

How likely are the people in the flooded area to get E. coli infection?

"The E. coli that's going to be in that water is unlikely the E. coli that causes some very severe illnesses that we read about with the infected ground beef and stuff like that. It's a different situation," says George Jackson, MD, director of employee occupational health and wellness at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "You've got sewage treatment that is obviously broken down and is not functional, and so the normal E. coli that all of us have inside of us is out there in the water. And that's primarily an indicator of dirty water, more so than necessarily a big-time pathogen."

What should people in the area do to prevent E. coli infection?

"No. 1, try to keep the water out of your mouth," Jackson says. "We're surrounded by E. coli all the time, and for the most part, as long as you don't ingest it, you're going to do just fine. If you ingest E. coli, there's not a whole lot you can do about it after the fact, and there's certainly no vaccination or anything of that nature.

"The real trick there, obviously, is ... if you're going to that area you want to make sure that you know how you're going to get clean water for yourself because that's probably in short supply."

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