Food poison cases traced to dairy farm

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The Independent Online
A DAIRY farm in Cumbria was traced yesterday as the source of an E.coli outbreak that has put three children in hospital and infected 16 others. An additional six people are also thought to be affected.

The children were receiving treatment for kidney problems at Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne, where their condition was said to be "comfortable" last night. The infection was caused by the bacterium O157, the most serious form of E.coli, which was responsible for the outbreak in Lanarkshire in 1996 in which 21 people died.

Health officials in west Cumbria appealed to local people to stay calm as the Government's Chief Medical Officer admitted the outbreak was serious. Professor Liam Donaldson said prompt local action had contained the problem but investigations were continuing and he promised to "monitor the situation closely." The farm had supplied milk to 300 people.

The cases first came to light on Monday after a GP told Cumbria health authority of a cluster of patients with persistent diarrhoea. On Tuesday it was confirmed that the organism causing the symptoms was E.coli. Environmental health officials at Allerdale Borough Council then began investigating the source of the infection. They discovered all the families infected had received milk from Scales Farm in Brigham, Cockermouth, run by William Thompson, and traced the infection to a pasteurising unit.

Stella Goh, public health consultant, said: "We have to consider this as a serious outbreak but you have to bear in mind that we have taken action very, very quickly. In that respect, we have contained it very, very well."

Asked about the three children affected, she said: "It's difficult to say whether their lives are in danger. They are in a serious condition, but they are stable." She urged people in the area to stay calm and to seek medical advice if they suffered from persistent symptoms.

John Cain, an environmental health officer, said the problem appeared to be limited to one delivery of milk from the farm, which has been serving the area for several years.

He said: "We seized milk from the bulk tank and the farmer volunteered not to bottle any more milk at the premises. There appears to have been a hiccup with one batch that went out." Milk from the farm is now being pasteurised and bottled elsewhere. Mr Cain added: "I cannot stress enough that people who may still have milk in the fridge which they bought before Wednesday should throw it away."

The bacterium causing alarm in Cumbria is a dangerous strain of Escherichia coli, a normal inhabitant of the gut. In 1982 it became clear that an E.coli strain, O157:H7, had acquired a gene that enabled it to produce a powerful poison, verotoxin. This E.coli has caused problems in America, continental Europe, South Africa and Japan.

In Britain, the number of cases increased from 361 in 1991 to more than 1,000 in 1997. Last year, the total declined slightly to about 900. The bacterium causes bleeding and diarrhoea, and is especially dangerous in children. Its most serious consequence is haemolytic uraemic syndrome, a form of kidney failure.