"It's alarming," Tesh added. "We really don't want to deal with this microorganism."
Early research suggests that the new lethal strain evolved from two different E. coli bacteria with aggressive genes.
"These E. coli are extremely plastic [flexible] in their genome. They're able to move pieces of DNA around so they can acquire new genes," Tesh said. "It looks to me that we're seeing is a strain of E. coli that has acquired not only the toxin gene but it's acquired a set of genes that allows it to adhere quite efficiently to the human intestinal tract."
Consumers should take the same precautions with food they always have, Tesh advised, which means keeping meat, particularly raw hamburger or raw beef, separate from other foods, washing cutting boards after they've had meat on them and washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli is a common bacteria that lives in the intestines of animals and people. There are many strains of E. coli. Most are harmless.
But other strains, such E. coli O157:H7 can cause sickness. Some people, especially children under 5 and the elderly, can become very sick. The infection damages their red blood cells and their kidneys. This only happens to about 1 out of 50 people, but it is serious. Without hospital care, they can die. See a doctor right away if you think you may have gotten sick from E. coli O157:H7, the CDC advises.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have more on E. coli.
SOURCES: Vernon Tesh, Ph.D., professor and associate chair, microbial and molecular pathogenesis, Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, Bryan; Bruce Hirsch, M.D., attending physician, infectious diseases, North Shore Univer
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