COUNTIES WITH E. COLI INFECTIONS IN 2011
Source: Tennessee Department of Health
Experts say the world's deadliest E. coli outbreak mostly has died down after starting in Germany,but with triple-digit heat indexes and the call of the lake, local health professionals aren't ruling out infection for Hamilton County.
"The old saying, 'I have a case of the runs,' it's probably E. coli poisoning," said Dr. Michael Mena with Chattanooga's Memorial Health System.
The Tennessee Department of Health last week issued a news release about avoiding water illnesses, asking people to keep germs out of the pool in the first place. Among other health tips to stop E. coli's spread, the department recommended against poolside diaper changes and swimming "if you have diarrhea."
The tips weren't just setups for Captain Obvious jokes. Through July 30, officials have reported 18 cases of E. coli in rural East Tennessee this year.
"[The department] has not been able to identify the specific source of infection in any of the E. coli cases, which unfortunately is not unusual," Tennessee Department of Health spokeswoman Andrea Turner wrote in an email.
Health and environmental officials say the same could happen in Chattanooga, where the Tennessee River and its tributaries can make hot summer days tolerable.
Mena, who logged several years as a U.S. Navy flight surgeon, said E. coli -- a bacterium that in its most violent forms can cause kidney failure, dehydration and death -- is easy to avoid.
"Don't swallow the water," Mena said Wednesday. "It's really that simple."
At least 21 streams in Hamilton County are or have been impaired by E. coli from sewage or septic failures, newspaper archives show. Among other popular public destinations, Renaissance Park and Chattanooga Creek have signs warning against touching or swimming in the water.
"If you have an open wound, don't go swimming in what might be contaminated water," Mena said. "As long as your skin is intact, you've got no problem."
Blamed on a contaminated batch of sprouts, the German outbreak began in May, killing 42 people, crossing the Atlantic Ocean and infecting at least two Americans. The Americans were coming home from a trip to Germany, where top health officials have said the wave is gradually subsiding.
None of the Tennessee cases were found to be linked to Germany's outbreak, Turner said.
Meats, fruits and vegetables notoriously harbor bacteria of all kinds, including several strains of E. coli, health officials said.
Run-of-the-mill food poisoning cases often can be linked to E. coli and traced to people, as Mena put it, "picking up something that says 'fresh organic lettuce,' opening up the plastic wrap, dumping it directly in the bowl and serving it. They don't wash their own food."
Thankfully, there is good news.
"The human body is wonderfully adaptive and is very capable of taking care of the vast majority of this," he said. "All you have to do is stay hydrated and take something for the muscle cramps and wait it out."