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Local E. coli death investigated

Health officials probing whether woman's death is part of national outbreak

Health officials probing whether woman's death is part of national outbreak

September 22, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Health officials are investigating whether a Washington County woman's E. coli death after eating spinach is tied to a national outbreak that has killed at least one person and sickened more than 150 others.

"This is a very suspicious association at this point; there's no question about it," Washington County Health Department spokesman Rod MacRae said

MacRae said the county sent a tissue sample from the woman to a state lab Tuesday for testing. It's not clear how effective the test will be, though, "because of how it was preserved," he said.

On Wednesday, the county sent the state lab a sample of spinach the woman ate in the days before she died, MacRae said.

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He said it might be about a week before test results are known.

Washington County Hospital spokeswoman Maureen Theriault referred all questions to the health department

MacRae wouldn't identify the woman by name, but said she was a Washington County resident in her 80s.

Warren Swartz of Hagerstown said the woman was his mother-in-law, June E. Dunning, who was 86 when she died Sept. 13.

Before getting sick this month, "she was as healthy as could be," Swartz said. "She had never been in the hospital since she gave birth."

He called her "very independent and very spunky" - a woman who regularly took a bus to the mall, walked the dog or played bingo, her favorite hobby.

Dunning was born in London. She moved to Washington County in the mid-1960s when her late husband, Arthur, who was in the U.S. Army, took a job at Fort Ritchie, Swartz said.

"For the most part, she was a homemaker," he said.

A death certificate issued at Washington County Hospital listed the cause of Dunning's death as "ischemic colitis," "atherosclerotic vascular disease" and "infection with escheria coli 0157:H."

E. coli is a bacterium that produces a toxin that can make people sick or kill them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can be spread through food or contaminated water or from person to person.

MacRae said it's uncertain whether the woman's type of E. coli is the same one at the heart of the national tainted spinach outbreak.

According to an update posted at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site Thursday, the E. coli strain 0157:H7 had infected 157 people from 23 states.

Seven cases were in Pennsylvania, but none were in Maryland or West Virginia.

Swartz said his mother-in-law steamed spinach from a package, ate some Aug. 30 and ate the rest Sept. 1.

She also ate baby spinach from a bag Aug. 30, he said. Swartz said he and his wife, Corinne, who is Dunning's daughter, sent the remaining baby spinach in that bag, plus an unopened other bag, to the health department.

Swartz said Dunning had severe rectal bleeding and bloody diarrhea - a sign of E. coli - on Sept. 1 and went to the hospital the next day.

She had surgery to remove part of her colon Sept. 5. Two days later, around the time she was diagnosed as having E. coli, she was in a coma, Swartz said.

Dunning came out of her coma at the end of the week and was alert, but she slipped back into a coma, he said. She died Sept. 13, around the time that news of the outbreak started to spread.

Swartz said the tissue sample being tested is from the section of Dunning's colon that was removed and was being preserved.

He and his wife aren't blaming anyone for Dunning's death, but want the public to be alert for E. coli.

"All we've been trying is to get the word out there," he said. "Maryland's not safe anymore from E. coli."

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