Forty-five cases of a serious e-coli infection have been reported in New Zealand this year – more than double the number for the same time last year.
Ministry of Health spokeswoman Dr Alison Roberts says the increase in vero-toxigenic E.coli (VTEC), coupled with a general rise in both bacterial and viral gastro-intestinal illness serves as a reminder of the need for good hygiene and safe food handling practices.
Dr Roberts says VTEC infections have been reported throughout New Zealand with a cluster of 17 similar cases in Auckland, Wellington and Taranaki.
VTEC can cause serious illness, sometimes leading to kidney failure particularly in the very young. To date two people have been hospitalised but have recovered. Infection can be spread due to poor hygiene, undercooked meat and meat products and inadequately washed fruits and vegetables.
Last year in the same time period a total of 19 cases were reported. This year’s increase has prompted the ESR to investigate the outbreak to determine if there is any association between particular foods and the infection.
Dr Roberts says there has been a general increase nationally in both bacterial and viral gastro-intestinal illness. So far this year there have been six outbreaks due to norovirus with a total of 79 notified cases and 221 other notifications with unidentified viral infections. Salmonella infections are also on the increase with two outbreaks detected and a total of 259 notifications so far this year.
Dr Roberts says anyone suffering diarrhoeal illness, particularly those who are very young or elderly, should contact their family doctor.
NZFSA’s Principal Advisor (Public Health), Dr Donald Campbell says people need to remember to wash and dry their hands after going to the toilet and before preparing and consuming food.
“Food can provide a pathway for transferring disease-causing organisms from person-to-person. If you have an illness but must prepare food for others, you need to be extremely careful to ensure that bacteria and viruses don’t contaminate the food. If you work in food service, manufacture or production you should stay at home until symptoms have stopped for at least 24 hours,” he says.
“It’s important that cooked and uncooked foods are not handled together and that salad greens and fruits are washed well before they are eaten. Uncooked food, particularly meat, chicken and fish, should be stored separately in the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Meats also need to be cooked thoroughly. Remember the 4Cs of food safety – clean, cook, cover, chill – and practise the 20+20 hand wash rule: 20 seconds washing + 20 seconds drying = clean hands.”