E.coli O157 & Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome

Ten Years On

12th December 2006

On the tenth anniversary of the country's largest E.coli O157 outbreak in Wishaw, Lanarkshire (which claimed the lives of 20 elderly people and resulted in almost 500 testing positive for the bacterium) Professor Hugh Pennington has urged the Scottish Executive and other groups to increase funding for research.

Recent figures from Health Protection Scotland (HPS) show that cases of E.coli O157 in Scotland this year are expected to reach their highest total since the Wishaw outbreak. 226 cases of E.coli O157 have been reported in the first 44 weeks of 2006, compared to 145 during the same period last year.

Prof Pennington, from Aberdeen University, who led an inquiry into the circumstances leading up to the 1996 outbreak, said he would be "very surprised" if there was any significant change within ten years in levels of E.coli in Scotland - believed to be among the highest worldwide. He said there were no immediate signs that infection rates would begin to decline.

"There would have to be some significant advance in the treatment of either cattle or people to make any real headway," he said. "We have to plan on the basis that for the next ten years we will continue with the same level of E.coli as we have now."

"The Executive could fund quite big studies on the animal side to find out how we can tackle this infection in our cattle. Without such studies it could be years and years before we see any movement on the problem."

He said that the Medical Research Council was also well placed to fund more basic research into the bug. E.coli O157 commonly lives harmlessly in the intestines of cattle and sheep.

Prof Pennington said if a test could be devised to identify the cattle carrying high levels, it might be possible to change their diet or treat them so they do not pass on the infection on.

Dr John Cowden, public health consultant at HPS, said the majority of cases were mostly picked up from the environment. "I would be surprised if more than 2 or 3 per cent were shown to be food-borne. Farms and the countryside can never be sterile," he said.

Dr Syed Ahmed, a public health consultant who was head of the NHS Lanarkshire outbreak control team in 1996, said there had been major changes in the way food is prepared in the last decade which meant E coli cases linked to food were less likely. But Dr Ahmed said another major outbreak was always possible, especially when people try to take short-cuts.

HUSH Chairman Paul Santoni, who gave legal representation to families involved in the Wishaw outbreak, said: "These things tend to wax and wane, but I think it did put E.coli to the front of people's minds. But it could happen again, there is always that possibility."

A Scottish Executive spokesman has indicated that E.coli is a priority, with extensive research being carried out in both Scotland and the rest of the UK, and that a more rural population is a contributing factor.

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