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The Informed Parent

Infectious Diarrhea

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Dec. 01, 1998

Recently, there has been an epidemic of a particular type of bacteria, E.coli, which causes infectious diarrhea. It is associated with consumption of contaminated hamburger meat, apparently improperly cooked, from fast food chains.

This organism has recently emerged in North America, South America, and Europe as an increasingly important public health concern. On the onset this organism generally causes non-bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Vomiting and fever may also occur. During the second to third day of illness, the stools may become bloody and last for several days.

In some cases, individuals do not develop bloody stools since they have a less severe form of the infection. It is the rare case where blood and kidney complications develop, increasing the risk of early death. Children under the age of five years and the elderly are most susceptible.

The incubation period for E. coli is 12 to 60 hours. Cattle being the main source, infection is spread by contaminated or undercooked beef. Ground beef receives more handling and has more surface area than other cuts. Sometimes assorted trimmings and fat are added for flavor, which further increases the risk of contamination.

Preventive measures are simple: thorough cooking of meat, especially hamburger, which should never be served rare or raw. The inside should be brown, not pink. In addition, food handlers need to exercise cleanliness and good hand-washing.

Person-to-person transmission rarely occurs. Association among family members or day care and institution settings may be the infrequent transmission sites. Once again, good washing can minimize the risk of spreading.

This condition can be serious, but also may be prevented. At the same time there are many other less serious forms of infectious diarrhea as seen in children. These other cases may be viral, parasitic or bacterial in origin. Most occur without blood in the diarrhea and are self-limiting. Some may require treatment.

Contact your child's physician if your child has diarrhea. Should the diarrhea turn bloody, seek immediate medical attention. Early diagnosis of these symptoms is important. Because of the heightened awareness of infectious diarrhea, early recognition and treatment will help eliminate any potential risk.

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