The intestines of humans and animals are naturally populated by a great many friendly bacteria which are part of our normal intestinal flora. This is true for a bacterium called Escherichia coli. However, a harmful variety of E. coli, called Verotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC), is capable of producing one or several powerful toxins and causing illness. This harmful variety is also called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) or enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC). This bacteria is naturally present in the intestines of cattle and other animals.
The variety of VTEC doctors are most familiar with is E. coli O157:H7 but there are other harmful varieties (such as E. coli O104:H4), which caused a major outbreak in 2011 in Germany, where 4000 people became ill and 40 died. The outbreak was traced to the consumption of contaminated bean sprouts.
VTEC infection is a form of food poisoning that occurs when a person eats food that is contaminated by VTEC bacteria. It is commonly called "hamburger disease" because of its association with undercooked ground beef. The symptoms are stomach pain, diarrhea and occasionally serious, bloody diarrhea (hemorrhagic colitis).
Did you know?...
Sources of infection
VTEC is mainly transmitted by contaminated food. Although several types of food can be contaminated, the usual culprit is poorly cooked ground beef. Other cases have been traced to unpasteurized milk products, various fresh products like fruits and raw vegetables (e.g., sprouts, lettuce, spinach), unpasteurized apple juice or cider and untreated water.
Illness and complications
- VTEC infection is a serious disease that can lead to complications, sequelae and even death.
- In some 5% to 15% of all cases, VTEC infection can cause a serious kidney problem called hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS can occur in healthy people of all ages, but is especially present among children under the age of five and the elderly. About 30% to 35% of people who have suffered from HUS will have long-term kidney damage and require regular medical follow-up.
- Pasteurization and cooking destroy VTEC and many other harmful bacteria.
- Simple preventive measures can reduce the risk of E. coli infection at home, the main one being thorough hand washing and proper hygiene when food is being handled (see Practical advice).
Are you a health professional?
If you are a health professional and would like to learn more, please visit the Infection à E. coli producteurs de vérocytotoxines (VTEC) « Maladie du hamburger" page on the Web site of the Director of Public Health for the Montréal region. (in French only)
VTEC infection can affect healthy people at any age, but it more seriously affects vulnerable people such as:
- children under the age of 5;
- the elderly; and
- immune-suppressed individuals (e.g., due to cancer, immune-suppressive treatment).
The Government of Canada has prepared food safety guides for vulnerable people.
What can you do to prevent problems
- World Health Organization (OMS) - Prevention of foodborne disease: Five keys to safer food
- MAPAQ – Guide du consommateur (in French only)
- MAPAQ - Beau, bon, bien cuit! Bye-bye bactéries! (in French only)
Whom should you contact to get help?
Call Info-Santé at 811 or see a doctor.
Where can you find additional, credible information?
- Public Health Agency of Canada –E. coli O157:H7: Food safety tips
- Public Health Agency of Canada – Escherichia coli, enterohemorrhagic - Material Safety Data Sheets
- Canadian Kidney Foundation – Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS)
- Health Canada - How to Avoid Illness from Hamburgers
Where can you look for information on food product recalls?
To find out what foods are under a recall order: