Dr Xand van Tulleken issues urgent E. coli outbreak warning with numbers 'expected to rise'

Ill woman lying on a couch with medication next to her
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A leading doctor has issued a health warning as an E. coli outbreak continues to affect dozens of people. More than 100 people have fallen ill in a new E.coli outbreak as the number of confirmed cases is expected to rise, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

There have been 113 confirmed cases in the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O145 outbreak since May 25 as experts continue to investigate the outbreak. Dr Xand van Tulleken has urged people to be aware of the different ways it can spread.

"E. coli are a bacteria that live all over us, in our gut, completely normally and most of the time they do not do us any harm," he told BBC's Morning Live. But there are some strains of E. coli that are dangerous because they make a toxin. This particular type of E. coli is called STEC, which is a Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.

"That type of E. coli can really interrupt your gut and can really do some damage in your body. It can make you extremely unwell. We associate it with food poisoning but that isn’t the only cause. Eating contaminated foods is main risk and the reason we associate it with food poisoning, but there are lots of other sources.

"Touching infected animals, particularly in a rural context. We are talking about livestock here that is associated with manure. Infected people. It is relatively hard to spread. It is not like Covid with airborne transition but, if someone is infected, unless you are being pretty careful about hygiene around the house, it can spread.

"Contact with contaminated water. This is a strange one in the UK because we think out our water system as being pretty good. I’ve worked around the world and E. coli around the world is a significant cause of diarrhoea and illness. But in the UK, our water sources are now frequently infected with raw sewage. You see things like the boat race and some of the rowers before that race. It was said to affect the result. They had symptoms associated with E. coli as a result of rowing on the Thames. Our water bodies should be for leisure and paddling around and having a good time. Instead, you can get infected."

Cases in the current outbreak range in age from 2 years old to 79 years old, with the majority of cases in young adults, the UKHSA said.

The breakdown of reported cases per country in the UK is as follows:

  • 81 in England

  • 18 in Wales

  • 13 in Scotland

  • 1 in Northern Ireland (for this case, evidence suggests that they acquired their infection while visiting England)

Trish Mannes, incident director at UKHSA, said: "Symptoms of infections with STEC include severe and sometimes bloody diarrhoea, stomach cramps, vomiting and fever. If you have diarrhoea and vomiting, you can take steps to avoid passing it on to family and friends.

"NHS.UK has information on what to do if you have symptoms and when to seek medical advice. Washing your hands with soap and warm water and using disinfectants to clean surfaces will help stop infections from spreading.

"If you are unwell with diarrhoea and vomiting, you should not prepare food for others and avoid visiting people in hospitals or care homes to avoid passing on the infection in these settings. Do not return to work, school or nursery until 48 hours after your symptoms have stopped."