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E. coli O157:H7
E. coli O157H:7 is a particular strain of the common E. coli bacterium that produces toxins, known as Shiga-toxin 1 and 2, that are absorbed into the bloodstream and cause the various systemic effects. The systemic effects of the toxins involve damage to blood cells (hemolytic anemia) and blood vessel lining (most noticably causing kidney damage).
The germ lives naturally in many farm animals. The usual source of infection is from poorly handled beef or chicken. Waterborn transmission has happened as well, with large outbreaks of very serious and potentially fatal illness. This has been potentially traced to agricultural runoff after heavy rains.
It has recently been found that antibiotic treatment of O157:H7 infections may result in a higher risk of the very serious condition known as hemolytic-uremic syndrome. 1 For this reason, antibiotic treatment of diarrhea should probably be withheld until there is a proven diagnosis known to require antibiotic therapy.
1 Retrospective studies have shown both a higher risk (New England Journal of Medicine 2000, 342:1930-36) and no significant increased risk (CDC conference report, Pediatric News, September 2000, p. 14).