Public Health Mid-West advice following outbreak of VTEC

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person in white shirt washing hands
Photo by Mélissa Jeanty on Unsplash

THE Department of Public Health Mid-West would like to highlight the importance of strong hand hygiene and effective well water treatment, following a recent outbreak of Verotoxigenic E. coli (VTEC) in a single setting in the Mid-West region.

 VTEC is a powerful strain of E. coli bacterium that can cause serious illness in children aged under five, and the elderly.

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 Public Health Mid-West is currently managing an outbreak of VTEC among young children in a single setting. We can confirm that it is currently under control. We would like to reassure the public that these isolated outbreaks do not affect the department’s work in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, or any other infectious disease in the region.

 VTEC can live in the gut of healthy cattle and sheep, but can be a source of food poisoning and can produce a toxin that can cause inflammation of the bowel which can lead to severe stomach cramps and bloody diarrhoea. Diarrhoea can last between two to nine days. Other people may experience very mild or no symptoms at all. A hospital laboratory can confirm the presence of VTEC if you provide a stool sample to your doctor.

 The most common ways to be infected with VTEC are through contact with farm animals (including those in pet and open farms), untreated water from private wells, person to person contact in creches or households where there are children under five years of age, and through food and drinks that are contaminated with tiny amounts of faecal matter.

 VTEC is usually uncomplicated and most people recover without issue, and it can be treated by drinking plenty of fluids. Antibiotics do not kill the VTEC germs, and may increase the risk of Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome (HUS). 

 VTEC can be particularly problematic as it can cause HUS in 5-10% of cases. HUS leads to the destruction of red blood cells and kidney failure, with some patients requiring intensive dialysis treatment. Five percent of people who develop this dangerous, life-threatening condition may die.

 Incidence of VTEC tends to be higher in warmer weather, particularly over the summer time, though the annual case number is likely to be lower in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Mid-West, there were 128 cases in 2018; 130 in 2019; and 117 in 2020*.

 Dr Rose Fitzgerald, Specialist in Public Health Medicine at Public Health Mid-West, said: “Ireland has one of the highest incidence rates of VTEC in Europe, and the Mid-West has one of highest incidence rates in Ireland. While VTEC can last in the system for as short as a week, it can sometimes take several months to clear the infection. Anyone who is infected, or is a close contact of a case requires clearance from a public health doctor to attend healthcare, childcare or work that involves food-handling.

 “It’s a serious disease that can cause serious life-changing illness in young children and the elderly. It underpins the importance of hand hygiene before and after preparing food, after contact with farm animals and their environment, and effective treatment and rehabilitation of private wells. We encourage everyone in Limerick, Clare and North Tipperary to avail of their respective council’s domestic well grant schemes to ensure that your private water supply is clean. This financial assistance could prevent serious illness and save a life.”

 Here are links to local authority grant schemes for domestic well water in the Mid-West:

 Limerick City and County Council: https://www.limerick.ie/council/services/water-and-drainage/rural-water-programme/grants-individual-water-supplies-houses

Clare County Council: https://www.clarecoco.ie/services/water-and-wastewater/rural-water-services/

Tipperary County Council: https://www.tipperarycoco.ie/content/well-grantstesting