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E. coli source proving elusive

Health investigators are trying to track down the Escherichia coli that hospitalized two Spring Hill 9-year-olds.

Kim Lapi, mother of the twins, told WTSP-Ch.10 in St. Petersburg that her daughter spent five days in a hospital, and her son's kidneys nearly failed.

The Hernando County Health Department confirmed the E. coli infections Nov. 15, said spokeswoman Ann-Gayl Ellis. It appears to be an isolated case, she said.

It's the same E. coli strain linked to Taco Bell restaurants that sickened at least three dozen people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. On Wednesday, the California chain removed scallions from its 5,800 U.S. restaurants.

So far, health investigators found no link between the twins' illness and the Taco Bell outbreak.

State and local "disease detectives" have interviewed the Spring Hill family to try to find the source of the bacteria, said Doc Kokol, a spokesman for the state Health Department.

"It is being taken very seriously," Kokol said.

The investigation is preliminary, and it remains unclear if any local restaurants are implicated, said Roberta Hammond, food and waterborne disease coordinator for the department.

Hammond cautioned that the O157:H7 strain is common, and DNA testing would be needed to link the Hernando County cases to the Taco Bell outbreak.

Ellis, of the county's Health Department, said she wasn't sure why the county hadn't notified the public for more than three weeks after confirming the Spring Hill infections. The county, which monitors E. coli cases from around the state, does not typically publicize isolated incidents, since they don't present a broader public health threat, she said.

Hernando's last confirmed case was in 2005.

"Sometimes, on a small scale like this you may not be able to identify the cause," Ellis explained. "In bigger cases, if you can track what everybody was doing or where they've been, you can track the source."

Hammond said Florida has had 27 cases of E. coli so far this year, including 10 since the beginning of September. It's unclear if those numbers include the twins. No other new cases are under investigation.

E. coli can be spread through uncooked ground beef, unpasteurized juices and milk and sewage contaminated water. It can cause cramps and bloody diarrhea. Some may suffer hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure.

Nine people remained hospitalized Wednesday in connection with the Taco Bell incidents in the northeast. Those sickened ate at the fast-food outlets in the last two weeks of November. No new cases have been reported since Nov. 29, according to New Jersey's health commissioner.

An E. coli outbreak earlier this year linked to packaged, fresh spinach killed three and sickened nearly 200.

Hammond said none of the E. coli cases in Florida this year have been linked to those outbreaks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (352)754-6127.

FAST FACTS

Preventing E. coli

- Cook all ground beef thoroughly, and ask restaurants to do the same. It should be cooked to 160 degrees at the thickest part of the meat. Wash meat thermometer before retesting meat.

- Keep raw meat away from ready-to-eat foods like fruits and vegetables. Wash cutting boards, surfaces, utensils and hands after handling raw

meat and before handling ready-to-eat foods.

- Avoid unpasteurized milk, juice and ciders.

- Wash fruits and vegetables under running water.

- Wash hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, changing diapers or caring for the elderly or disabled.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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