Deadly E. Coli Outbreak Has South on High Alert

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The nation's top disease hunters are searching for the source of an E. coli outbreak.

Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say this particular strain is sweeping across the South and carrying a deadly toxin.

About a dozen cases have been detected in four states: Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana. Half are in Atlanta alone. The CDC doesn't yet know the source of the outbreak.

"They are racing against the clock because they want to figure out what the product is and get it out the market before it sickens or kills anyone else," food safety attorney Bill Marler said.

In New Orleans, the disease killed a 21-month-old baby girl. Health officials believe all of the victims have been sickened by the same strain of E. coli.

"We know that these cases are all linked, and that would suggest that there was a common source somewhere along the way. We just don't know where," J. Patrick O'Neal, director of Health Protection for the of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said.

This particular strain of E. coli carries what's called the 0145 genetic fingerprint. It produces a deadly toxin that can cause violent reactions--kidney damage and even death.

No vaccine or medication can protect you from E. coli-based illness, so public health officials are reminding people to do the following:

  • Wash their hands after handling poultry.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables before you eat them.
  • Cook your chicken and beef thoroughly.

While officials try to pinpoint the source, experts are urging the public to be aware of the outbreak but not to panic.

"We have outbreaks of various types of diarrheal diseases quiet frequently as I'm sure you know," O'Neal said. "And by virtue of the fact that so far all these cases have been mild here in Georgia, I think that's a good sign."

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