A warning about a nasty strain of E.coli which is life-threatening in one in 10 cases has been circulated to early learning centers.

Taranaki District Health Board medical officer of health Dr Jonathan Jarman has started to raise awareness about Shiga toxin-producing E.coli (STEC) after research found the number of cases in the area was increasing but few people knew about it.

The research, by a medical student last year, found most cases were in children under the age of five who had been exposed to farm animals in the week prior to the onset of illness, Jarman said. Almost half the people affected were hospitalised and one in 10 people developed a life-threatening complication - haemolytic uraemic syndrome.

Haemolytic uraemic syndrome caused the kidneys to shut down and meant renal dialysis was required.

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Jarman said STEC, also known as Verotoxin E.coli, was an organism carried in the intestines of cattle and other farm animals but the study found that virtually no one in the farming sector had heard about it.

"STEC is twice as common as leptospirosis which everyone knows about," he said. "It's a type of E.coli that produces a toxin and it can be quite serious in humans."

It caused a severe gastrointestinal illness and was mainly a problem in areas where there was a lot of dairy farming and was most common around calving season.

The strain was first detected in humans in New Zealand in 1993, Jarman said. Last year there were 14 cases in Taranaki and so far this year there had been six.

No one had died from it in Taranaki but there had been deaths in other parts of the country.

ESR public health physician Jill Sherwood said there had been no increase in the number of STEC cases nationally. There were 205 reported last year and 125 so far this year.

Jarman distributed information to local organisations as well as a couple of national ones such as the Ministry for Primary Industries in his mission to raise awareness. The message had gone out to early learning centre in Taranaki and spread to other centres including some in Auckland.

"It is a very contagious disease. It's quite easy to pick up. For that reason when we are notified about cases we actually ask them to stay away from preschool until they are better."

STEC was usually caught through eating contaminated raw food, drinking unpasteurised milk or contaminated water and contact with infected animals or the faeces of infected people.

The best prevention was regular hand washing especially before eating, after helping out on a farm and after touching animals, he said.


Shiga toxin-producing E.coli (STEC)
Caught by: eating contaminated raw food, drinking unpasteurised (raw) milk, drinking contaminated water, contact with infected animals or contact with the faeces of infected people.
Symptoms: severe abdominal pain, diarrhoea (which may be bloody) and vomiting.
Treatment: Keep hydrated, children with severe abdominal pain should always be taken to a doctor.
Prevention: Washing your hands after coming into contact with animals or working on a farm and before eating, cooking meat well, boiling untreated water and raw milk before drinking it, and not swimming in water where you can't see your feet.