HOUGHTON - The Western Upper Peninsula Health Department is investigating a cluster of E. coli cases which originated at a Houghton restaurant, but no further cases are expected to result from the exposure.
Dr. Terry Frankovich, WUPHD medical director, said the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 occurred at the Ambassador Restaurant on Shelden Avenue during Christmas. Seven people became ill and four were hospitalized with no deaths occurring. The seven people who became ill were not sitting together. Two of the people were from Dickinson County and Wisconsin, with the rest from the Copper Country.
Frankovich said the O157:H7 strain when found in laboratory testing is reportable to the health department.
Kurt Hauglie/Daily Mining Gazette
The Ambassador Restaurant in downtown Houghton has been identified by the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department as the source of an E. coli outbreak over Christmas, when seven people became ill and four were hospitalized with bacteria-related symptoms.
"When a laboratory gets a positive result on (the tests), they're entered into the state public health system," she said.
Frankovich said the WUPHD offices on Depot Street in Hancock received notice of the positive tests at the beginning of January after some of the people who became ill went to their doctors.
The fact that there was more than one case of the O157:H7 strain in the same time frame raised concerns of health department officials.
"Any of those cases of E. coli we look at, but having more than one case at the same time in the same area is unusual," she said.
After talking to the people who became ill during the same time period, Frankovich said it was determined the commonality was the Ambassador Restaurant.
Frankovich said after getting the information about the E. coli illnesses, health department environmental health staff went to the Ambassador Restaurant to talk to the managers and to determine whether the source was food or an employee.
"What we identified as a source was an ill food handler," Frankovich said.
The restaurant is open for business, and there is no anticipated risk for further exposure, she said.
Frankovich said there are many strains of E. coli in the environment, but few cause serious problems.
"Most of the strains out there don't cause illness," she said.
Frankovich said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify more than 250,000 cases of E. coli illness in the United States each year, and about one third of those cases are the O157:H7 strain.
Symptoms of the O157:H7 strain include severe abdominal cramping and bloody diarrhea, Frankovich said. There is a seasonal strain of stomach virus going around now, but its symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea don't compare to the O157:H7 strain.
"It's a more severe kind of infection than the viral flu," she said.
The symptoms for the O157:H7 strain can present in as little as one day and as many as 10 days, Frankovich said. However, the range is usually three to four days.
Bruce McLean, kitchen manager at the Ambassador Restaurant, said this morning restaurant employees are making an effort to make certain there is no more E. coli at the business.
"We've been working with the health department," he said.
McLean said it's thought the employee who may have provided the bacteria exposure didn't show symptoms of illness at the time people became ill.
The restaurant's employees know what they need to do to prevent food-borne illness, McLean said.
"We have constant training," he said. "We make sure (sick) people are out way beyond 24 hours."
McLean said he appreciates the way health department employees have handled the situation with the E coli exposure.
The Ambassador Restaurant has a good record for safe food, McLean said.
"We've been in business for 46 years," he said. "This is the first time this has happened to us."
There have been no further reports of O157:H7 illnesses in 10 days, Frankovich said.
"We feel the exposure is resolved," she said.
Anyone who became ill during Christmas with the symptoms described for E. coli O157:H7 exposure is asked to contact the health department at 482-7382.