August 16, 2023

E. coli cases are common in Tennessee, especially among children. Here’s what doctors want you to know.

Doctors in Tennessee have noticed that several cases of serious toxin-producing Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli, occur every year in the state. They want to make residents more aware of the risks of this severe and potentially life-threatening infection and how to take preventive measures against the bacteria.

“We seem to have 10, 15, sometimes 20 cases a year. Often one case can affect the other children in the same family.”

The toxin-producing strain that is the most common in the U.S. and in Tennessee is E. coli O157:H7. This strain damages the intestinal lining and produces a toxin that can lead to kidney failure, especially in children. Ultimately, such an infection can have devastating consequences.

“It’s a pretty bad disease, and we seem to have 10, 15, sometimes 20 cases a year,” said Dr. Tray Hunley of the Nephrology and Hypertension Program at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Often one case can affect the other children in the same family. “I would estimate we’ve had 10 or 11 sibling pairs throughout the years,” Hunley added.

A harrowing story

Josh and Kerra Willhite of Tennessee learned about the dangers of E. coli O157:H7 the unfortunate way. First, their 4-year-old was experiencing abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. “It was like a dry heave out of his backside,” Josh said. Their boy was no longer producing diarrhea. “But there was more and more blood,” he added. So they headed to the Monroe Carell Emergency Department, where their son was admitted to intensive care.

A week later, while he was in the hospital and still quite ill, a grandparent who was taking care of their other children called to tell the Willhite that the same thing was happening to their youngest son. “I absolutely had a meltdown,” Kerra said. They had to admit him too.

Meanwhile, Kerra, who was pregnant at the time, was just weeks away from her due date. Her water broke during the height of their family crisis. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is not happening. This is not happening,’” she recalled. “We didn’t really know how long we would be in the hospital, and I was just thinking it just wasn’t going to happen while they were in the hospital.” However, she ended up giving birth while both boys were still receiving care.

The older of the two children remained at Monroe Carell for over a month. Both boys required kidney dialysis in the short term. And one had to have part of his colon removed. He also developed diabetes and chronic kidney disease.

The complications of E. coli

E. coli O157:H7 generally presents itself as bloody diarrhea and gastrointestinal pain. “About 10% to 15% of kids who have this colitis will get what’s called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, from the toxin getting into the bloodstream,” Hunley said. The toxin can cause the filters of the kidney to clot, which can then lead to kidney failure. Additionally, many people become anemic. The condition can be fatal, although that’s rare. “But HUS is horrible and devastating,” Hunley added, “because it happens so fast.” Children and seniors are more susceptible to the infection, he said.

Why are there so many cases in Tennessee?

Researchers don’t know the exact reasons why the state tends to have so many E. coli O157:H7 cases each year. But Hunley said that rural populations are often around livestock, whether they are farmers or they raise animals on the side, so that may be a factor. “It’s just normal bacteria for cattle,” he explained, “but it’s disease-causing for us.”

Prevention methods

You can prevent E. coli O157:H7 contamination several ways. One is to always cook meat thoroughly, especially beef. Another is to ensure children rigorously wash and sanitize their hands after touching or being around animals, whether on a farm or at a petting zoo.

“We’ve had a couple kids who became ill three or four days after they went canoeing,” Hunley added. He said water runoff from pastureland can end up in lakes and rivers. So avoid swallowing water if you’re swimming or playing in it and talk to your kids about doing the same.

The Willhite family, looking forward

The Willhites aren’t sure how their boys became infected, but Hunley said they had been around livestock at an informal petting zoo, so that’s a possibility. Likely, only the older of the two boys contracted E. coli O157:H7, but then he accidentally passed the bacteria on to his younger brother.

“They’re doing somewhat better,” Hunley said of the two boys, “but they will continue to have these related chronic conditions for the rest of their lives.”

The Willhites say they’re grateful to Dr. Hunley and the rest of the care team at Monroe Carell for helping them through this challenging time. “We feel like family because of what we went through together,” Kerra said.

Quality Care When You Need It Most

The Emergency Department at Monroe Carell Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt is there when your child faces a routine mishap or something far more serious. Monroe Carell provides the region’s best pediatric emergency care as quickly as possible, any time of day or night, with highly specialized physicians best able to respond to any pediatric emergency.

If your child is experiencing a life-threatening medical situation, call 911.

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