The Ireland Health Service Executive (HSE) has advised the public to take extra care when handling and preparing food following an increase in the number of Verocytotoxigenic Escherichia coli (VTEC) infections in recent weeks.

E. coli/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
E. coli/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

VTEC are a specific group of the bacterium Escherichia coli. The commonest member of this group of bacteria in Ireland is E. coli O157:H7. E. coli O26 is the next most common strain.

The number of VTEC cases notified in Ireland in the past 10 days (96) is over three times as high as this time last year.

Dr Kevin Kelleher, Assistant National Director, Public Health, said that “While investigations haven’t identified a specific reason for the increase in cases we would like to remind people to be careful about food safety during this heatwave to protect themselves against food poisoning. This hot weather provides the right conditions for bacteria such as VTEC to grow and multiply on foods which can lead to high numbers of cases of food poisoning in adults and children. Not washing hands after handling raw meat, not washing fruits and vegetables and undercooking minced meats such as beef burgers are common ways of getting food poisoning at this time of year.”

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The symptoms of VTEC infection vary but often include bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Symptoms usually pass within five to ten days. However, VTEC infection can also cause a more serious complication called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) in up to 10% of cases which can lead to kidney failure, and occasionally even death. HUS is more common in children under five and the elderly. It is important to visit your doctor if you develop bloody diarrhea.