Northern Ireland

Q&A: Belfast E. coli outbreak

E coli
Image caption The bacteria produce a toxin that can be fatal

An outbreak of E. coli linked to a restaurant in north Belfast has now reached 20 confirmed cases. It is being described by the Public Health Agency as the worst in Northern Ireland's history.

What is E. coli?

E. coli is short for Escherichia coli. It is a type of bacterium present in the gut of humans and other animals.

Most strains are harmless but some are able to produce toxins that can cause symptoms in humans.

The severity of the illness people can get varies considerably, but some types of E. coli lead to severe cramps and diarrhoea.

This outbreak is linked to the O157 strain of the bacterium.

What do we know about this strain?

E. coli O157 is the most important toxin-producing strain associated with human illness.

There area a variety of ways of picking up the infection from eating infected food, mainly meat, unpasteurised milk and cheese to contact with infected animals, such as at farms or animal sanctuaries.

Contact with other people who have the illness, through inadequate hand washing after using the toilet is another way the infection is spread.

What are the health effects?

Symptoms - such as diarrhoea with blood in it, severe cramps, and fevers - can take up to eight days to develop.

They can last up to two weeks, except in cases with complications. Most people get rid of the bacteria after about one week although children may continue to carry it for longer periods.

Complications are more common in children under five years of age and the elderly.

What is the health advice?

There is no specific treatment for E. coli O157 infection. The medical advice is to drink plenty of fluids as diarrhoea can lead to dehydration and you can lose important sugars and minerals from your body.

A simple painkiller like paracetamol can help combat any pain.

Antibiotics have not been shown to be helpful and can increase the risk of gcomplications such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS). When such complications develop, patients need to be admitted to hospital.

Will the numbers of infected rise?

The PHA says the incubation period for E coli is typically up to seven days and they expect to see a further increase in cases as people continue to report symptoms and submit samples for testing, but that this does not mean the situation is getting worse.

The restaurant at the centre of the outbreak, Flicks in the Cityside Mall, has closed voluntarily. People who have eaten there since 24 September and have had the symptoms listed above should contact their GP urgently.

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