Suspected E. Coli Outbreak in Wisconsin

ByABC News

W A U K E S H A, Wis. -- Health officials launched an investigationafter 19 students at a grade school became ill and at least one wasconfirmed to have the E. coli bacteria.

The students, ages 5 to 9, from Bethesda Elementary School hadgotten ill in recent days with symptoms similar to E. coli, healthofficials said.

One child being treated at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin wasconfirmed to have contracted E. coli, and test results were not yetin for another patient there, hospital spokeswoman Melissa Douglas.She declined to give any information on the patients, such as theirages. Neither was in intensive care, she said.

At Waukesha Memorial Hospital, preliminary testing indicated onechild could have E. coli but final results were not yet in, nursingsupervisor Jane Hooten said. She declined to give any informationon the child at the family’s request.

Schools to Investigate

No source of the illness was immediately determined, said JeffLandin, chief of staff to Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley.

School officials said they started receiving calls from parents,area hospitals and medical clinics Wednesday informing themBethesda students had signs of E. coli illness.

The Waukesha district contracts with a private firm for the hotlunch program, and food for Bethesda is prepared at West HighSchool and then transported and reheated, administrators said.

Food safety officials from Sodexho Marriott Services, the firmwhich provides food to most of Waukesha’s public schools, wereexpected to be in Waukesha Thursday to assist health officials,said Jeanette Jurkiewicz, senior manager of public relations forthe company, based in Gaithersburg, Md.

“If any one child is dealing with E. coli, that’s a very seriousthing, and of course that’s a lot of concern no matter where that’scoming from in terms of E. coli contamination,” said BethesdaPrincipal Jack Bothwell.

The investigation will have to consider food brought to school and sharedby youngsters, as well as food served through the hotlunch program, he said. The school has 485 students.

Health officials planned to check the school’s lunchroomThursday and Friday, while students were home because of ateachers’ conference.

Suspect Food Handling Practices

Last summer, an E. coli outbreak linked to a Milwaukee Sizzlerrestaurant killed a 3-year-old girl and sickened more than 60people.

Health officials found E. coli bacteria in a sample ofraw ground meat at the restaurant. Investigators said the bacteriaapparently was transferred to watermelon and other salad bar itemsbecause of unsafe food handling.

E. coli is a bacteria usually found in the intestines or manureof cattle. People who ingest it can suffer severe cramps, bloodydiarrhea and, in extreme cases, kidney failure.

Most Bethesda parents first learned of the possible E. colioutbreak when they picked up their children Wednesday.

“That really bothers me, because I’ve dealt with it twice,”said Tammy Lach, whose fifth-grader was diagnosed with E. coli asan infant and 4-year-old. “It’s a very frightening thing.”

Dianne Frowein said her daughter stayed home from school sickfor three days with diarrhea.

“I thought it was just the flu,” said Frowein, who quicklyvisited a doctor to have her daughter tested.

She was told it would take up to 48 hours to determine theresults, but she told a reporter Wednesday night: “I’m pretty surethat’s what it is. Being a mom, and you give me the symptoms, I’msure.”

A letter was sent home Wednesday, explaining to parents thatthree students at the school had been diagnosed with what officialsbelieve to be E. coli.

Sodexho Marriott serves about 10,300 hot lunches a day inWaukesha schools. Sodexho Marriott employees are all trained inproper food-handling techniques, and the company routinely inspectsequipment, Jurkiewicz said.

The State University of New York at Albany canceled its contractwith Sodexho Marriott in June, after unsafe food-handling practiceswere linked to E. coli outbreaks in campus cafeterias.