- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

Maryland health officials confirmed yesterday that three children in the state with E. coli are linked to the nationwide outbreak caused by contaminated spinach.

Officials are also investigating the death of an elderly woman in Washington County as a potential case.

There have been 10 cases of E. coli 0157:H7 identified in the state since Aug. 1, said John Hammond, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The three children ate the spinach before the national alert was issued in mid-September, Mr. Hammond said. Of the remaining seven cases, three are not linked to the outbreak, and the other four are still under investigation.

Mr. Hammond would not give specifics about the cases, saying only that one of the four pending investigations involved a death.

Rod MacRae, a spokesman with the Washington County Health Department, also would not identify the woman or give specifics about her other than she was in her 80s and lived in the county.

The Hagerstown Herald-Mail has identified the woman as June Dunning, 86, of Hagerstown, who died Sept. 13 at Washington County Hospital. The cause of death on her death certificate is listed as ischemic colitis, atherosclerotic vascular disease and infection with E. coli 0157:H7, the newspaper reported.

Mr. MacRae said that the woman’s tissue samples and some of the spinach she ate were turned over to the state’s health department.

He said it hasn’t been determined whether the woman’s type of E. coli is the same strain found in the spinach and it could be days before test results are known.

“It’s a lengthier process than most people realize,” Mr. MacRae said. “But it’s suspicious, absolutely, especially given the background of what’s going on in the rest of the country.”

E. coli is often spread by human or animal waste. The 0157:H7 strain is particularly virulent, producing a toxin and can cause severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps.

Symptoms typically begin two to eight days after exposure, though many people recover without treatment in five to 10 days.

The strain has killed one person and sickened at least 166 persons across the country since last month.

The first person to become sick because of the spinach started having symptoms Aug. 19.

As of yesterday, the E. coli strain 0157:H7 had been reported in 25 states, including two cases in Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Wisconsin, 41 cases have been reported, including the death of one woman, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

In Idaho, a 2-year-old boy’s death from a kidney disease associated with E. coli infection is also being investigated.

Health officials have traced the outbreak to contaminated spinach from at least one of nine farms and several processing plants in California’s greater Salinas Valley.

California produces 74 percent of the fresh spinach grown in the United States, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation. The state also grows 67 percent of the processing spinach, which is sold either frozen or canned.

Natural Selection Foods LLC, based in San Juan Bautista, Calif., recalled its packaged spinach throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico as a precaution after federal health officials said some of those hospitalized reported eating brands of packaged spinach distributed by the company.

However, some restaurants and retailers may be taking spinach out of bags before selling it, so consumers should not buy it at all, the FDA said.

Boiling contaminated spinach can kill the bacteria, but washing will not completely eradicate it, the federal officials also warned.

The spinach could have been contaminated in the field or during processing.

Federal officials said that the bacteria had not been isolated in products sold by Natural Selection Foods, which is known for Earthbound Farm and other brands. Other brands may be implicated as the probe continues, officials said.

Each American eats an average of three pounds of spinach every year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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