Local E. coli death investigation continues

November 30, 1999|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

Maryland health officials said Friday they have confirmed the state's first three spinach-related E. coli illnesses in a nationwide outbreak, but aren't sure if a Washington County woman's death also was connected.

The Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene doesn't yet know if it can determine the source of the woman's E. coli.

"Certain specimens that we need in order to conduct the DNA testing are not available on that resident," Dr. Michelle Gourdine, the state's deputy secretary of public health services, said Friday, according to The Associated Press. "We are looking at utilizing alternate specimens that are available, but they're not ideal in terms of doing that DNA fingerprinting. And so that case may never be confirmed."

The department said the three confirmed cases were children who consumed spinach before a national alert went out in mid-September.

DHMH has received a sample of the Washington County woman's tissue, as well as samples from a spinach package from which she ate, department spokesman John Hammond said.


Once the samples reached a state lab, it probably would take about a week to test them and have results ready, Hammond said. He didn't know when the state received the samples.

Health officials have declined to identify the woman, other than she was in her 80s and lived in Washington County.

Warren Swartz of Hagerstown has said the woman is his mother-in-law, June E. Dunning. He said she always was healthy and active before she got sick at the beginning of the month.

The number of reports of people infected with E. coli from fresh spinach nationwide has increased to 166, according to an update posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site Friday afternoon. The cases have come from 25 states.

An adult's death in Wisconsin has been tied to tainted spinach. The deaths of the Washington County woman and a 2-year-old child in Idaho are being investigated as possibly connected.

Dunning was 86 years old when she died Sept. 13. Her death certificate lists E. coli infection as a cause, along with ischemic colitis and atherosclerotic vascular disease.

E. coli is a bacterium. Most strains are harmless, but the type in the spinach outbreak, 0157:H7, produces a toxin that can lead to severe illness, health officials have said.

Dunning's death certificate lists hers as O157:H. It's not clear if this matches the bad-spinach strain. Christine Pearson, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman, said there should be a number after the H to specify the strain.

Swartz said Dunning steamed spinach from a package and ate it Aug. 30, then finished the package Sept. 1. She also ate baby spinach from another bag Aug. 30.

On Sept. 2, she went to the Washington County Hospital emergency room with rectal bleeding and bloody diarrhea.

On Sept. 5, part of her colon was removed during surgery.

A tissue sample from that removed section of colon was to be used for testing after she died, Swartz said.

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