Public health officials are investigating iced tea among other menu items at a Stephens County barbecue restaurant as the possible source of a major E. coli outbreak that has sickened as many as 18 people.
Eleven people have been confirmed to have E. coli infection, and seven others are probable cases, though their illness has not been confirmed by lab results, state officials say.
There have been no other infections reported since May 8. “The risk is gone,’’ said Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health.
“We are looking at everything on the menu,’’ Nydam said Friday to GHN. Investigators are looking at the possibility of “cross contamination,’’ in which harmful bacteria are transferred to food from other foods, cutting boards, utensils or other objects if they are not handled properly.
Several of the cases are severe and have required hospitalization. Five people have been diagnosed with Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a kind of kidney failure that is a rare but serious complication of E. coli infection.
The HUS patients are recovering, said Dave Palmer, public information officer for the local public health district.
Stephens County is in northeast Georgia, bordering South Carolina.
Cherie Drenzek, state epidemiologist at Public Health, said outbreaks of this strain of E. coli are considered public health emergencies because the infection can have severe clinical complications.
“This is a big one, as far as E. coli outbreaks go,’’ she said recently. “It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck situation.”
Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Most varieties of E. coli are harmless or cause relatively mild cases of diarrhea.
People can be exposed to E. coli from contaminated water or food, especially raw vegetables and undercooked ground beef. Healthy adults usually recover from infection with E. coli within a week, but young children and older adults can develop HUS, which damages the lining of the tiny blood vessels in the kidneys.
All of the patients reported their illnesses between May 4 and May 8, and investigators believe everyone was probably infected sometime between May 2 and May 4.
Those infected with E. coli generally show symptoms three to four days after they’ve eaten the contaminated food, said Palmer.
Drenzek said public health officials learned of the outbreak after a DPH epidemiology surveillance officer noticed a cluster of E. coli cases — four patients in one week — in lab reports from the Stephens County Hospital.
The Stephens County Health Department had also received complaints about the BBQ Shack after some customers reported being ill after eating at the restaurant.
Public health investigators interviewed all the patients who were sick, as well as some diners who ate at the restaurant but did not become ill, tracking them down using credit card receipts. Food samples and environmental swabs taken from the restaurant on May 16 tested negative for any pathogens.
The restaurant is cooperating in the probe, public health officials said.
“Sometimes we’re not able to definitively say what’s the source,’’ Palmer said. “That’s the hard part with food-borne investigations.”
Each year, about 1 in 6 people in the United States gets sick from eating contaminated food, a rate that has not declined in seven years, according to the CDC.