The Department of Public Health said it is investigating the circumstances behind a “noticeable increase” of cases of a potentially-deadly bacteria, Verotoxigenic E Coli or (VTEC), in the Mid-West region.
According to provisional data published by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) for 2022, there were more than 20 VTEC cases notified in the region between July 31st and August 27th, “including a number of hospitalisations”, said a spokesman for Public Health Mid West.
In addition to causing severe stomach pains and diarrhoea, VTEC can cause a serious condition known as Haemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), which results in the breakdown of red blood cells and kidney failure.
“A small number of HUS cases have been confirmed,” said the spokesman.
“Between 5-10 per cent of VTEC cases, particularly children under five and the elderly, will suffer from HUS, with some requiring dialysis. 5 per cent of people who develop this serious condition may die.”
“Our multidisciplinary Public Health teams have managed and investigated outbreaks and cases in households and in rural settings, particularly on or near farms, and sites with access to a private well supply, and sources of infection are under investigation.”
VTEC can be prevented by effective treatment of private water wells and hand-washing, explained the spokesman.
“If your private well water is not treated, the water you are drinking could be contaminated and cause illness. There are a number of ways you can treat you well, and you may able to avail of local authority grants to support treatment.”
He also advised people to use warm water and soap to wash their hands when on or near farm settings/petting zoos; before and after preparing and eating food; after using a toilet or nappies.
The spokesman also urged people to “thoroughly wash raw vegetables before eating, and always cook meat fully”.
Farm animals particularly cattle, carry VTEC in their bowels and can pass the bacteria to humans through direct contact or their surrounding environment; from eating unwashed or undercooked contaminated food; from drinking water from contaminated wells.
The bacteria can also be spread by people infected with VTEC “such as in household or childcare settings where there is nappy changing or shared toilet facilities”.
“Over the past 10 years, the Department of Public Health Mid-West has been notified of approximately 1,250 cases of VTEC in the Mid-West region, with the highest number of cases (164) in 2021. The region (Clare, Limerick and North Tipperary) has one of the highest rates of VTEC in Ireland, and Ireland has one of the highest rates in Europe.”
Dr Mai Mannix, Area Director for Public Health Mid-West, said that, “while it is not unusual to see an increase in VTEC cases during the warm period, many infections can be preventable by effective hand washing around farms and petting zoos, and the treatment of your private well”.
“While it can last in the human system for a number of days, it can take weeks—sometimes months—to clear the infection,” said Dr Mannix.
“Not only can it cause severe illness, there can be a wider, disruptive burden associated with the disease to individuals, households, and sometimes businesses,” she added.