Northern Ireland

E. coli outbreak: Health agency says more cases due

Image caption The outbreak has been linked to Flicks restaurant in north Belfast

It has been Northern Ireland's worst outbreak of E. coli and it is not over yet.

The Director of Public Health for the Public Health Agency Dr Carolyn Harper, expects to see the number of cases linked to a north Belfast restaurant rise over the next few days before it starts to level off.

But for an outbreak of such a size has Northern Ireland been lucky?

A different strain of the infection left 24 people dead across Europe last year.

The type in Northern Ireland is E. coli 0157 and while more common it can also lead to serious health problems and even, in some cases, claim lives.

In Japan this year seven people, mostly elderly died after eating contaminated pickles .

The outbreak in Northern Ireland is centred on Flick's restaurant in the Cityside Mall.

It has closed voluntarily while the cause is investigated.

While open the kitchen was providing between 800 and 1,000 covers a week.

"A lot of people could have been exposed and become ill," Dr Harper said.

"There have been 18 hospitalisations, but no deaths.

"Most of the people infected are young adults and it is normally in the very young or old that E. Coli becomes much more serious.

"The restaurant is beside a cinema so it would have had a lot of people coming out of films and going in.

"It is still very unpleasant though, a very sore tummy, nausea and diarrhoea possibly with blood in it, it is a nasty infection."

In the course of an average year there can be up to 70 cases of E. coli 0157 in Northern Ireland.

Few relate to eating establishments, with petting zoos, nurseries and care homes being more likely to have cases of the infection.

Dr Harper said it was not possible to put a date on when the outbreak would end with testing still being carried out on possible cases.

The restaurant closed on 11 October and the incubation period can be up to ten days, but there have been a small number of secondary infections, people living with someone who had the infection also picking it up.

The PHA has said that if you are in a high risk occupation, catering or healthcare, and live with someone who has E. coli you should be screened for the infection before going to work.

Efforts to continue to identify the cause of the Flicks outbreak are continuing, but Dr Harper said that a single source may not be found.

"The contamination may have been on a surface that was then cleaned in the normal running of the restaurant, in which case tests are unlikley to pinpoint it exactly," she said.

She added that the health authorities in Northern Ireland were in a good position to deal with the outbreak.

"We have a single organisation to look out for this and labs that can quickly tell us when there is a problem.

"We were able to react quickly when we identified E. coli because there had been another outbreak at the restaurant in August, so when another sample linked to it came through we were already across it."

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