Coast KZN

26 Aug 2022

No swimming, No fishing: E. coli — where it comes from and why it is dangerous

Dominic Naidoo (IOL) Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

The eThekwini Municipality, on Tuesday, decided to close some of Durban’s beaches along the north and south coasts due to excessive levels of E. coli in the water.The decision was taken after schools of dead fish were found washed up along the shores of the Umgeni River, near Blue Lagoon on Monday. The incident follows The Mercury’s reports that scores of dead fish washed up at Isipingo Beach lagoon two weeks ago.

Although unconfirmed, authorities and civil society believe that the fish died of high levels of E. coli in the water, that originated from untreated sewage, which has leaked into waterways and eventually into the oceans. The sewage may originate from leaking water treatment infrastructure damaged during the April and May floods. What exactly is E.coli and where does it come from?

According to eLife Sciences, a German microbiologist and paediatrician, Theodor Escherich, began a study of infant gut microbes and their role in digestion and disease in 1884. During this study, he discovered a fast-growing bacterium that he called Bacterium coli commune, which we know as Escherichia coli, named after Dr Escherich.

The World Health Organisation explains that E. coli is a bacterium, which is common in the gut of humans and other warm-blooded animals but we needn’t be concerned as most strains of E. coli are harmless. Some strains, however, such as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli can cause severe, foodborne disease. It is transmitted to humans primarily through the consumption of contaminated foods, such as raw or undercooked ground meat products, raw milk, and contaminated raw vegetables and sprouts.

Contamination could occur when untreated or unclean water is used for irrigation or animal consumption.

Symptoms of E. coli infection include severe abdominal cramps and diarrhoea, which, in severe cases, escalate to bloody diarrhoea with high fevers and vomiting possibly also occurring. The incubation period (period from infection to symptoms) can range from three to eight days, with an average incubation of three to four days.

Although most patients recover within 10 days, in a small percentage of infected patients, usually children and the elderly, it may lead to a life-threatening disease, such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) which is characterised by acute renal failure, haemolytic anaemia and thrombocytopenia (low blood platelets).

The United States Centre for Disease Control (CDC) reported on Thursday that at least 10 people have been hospitalised with symptoms like severe stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and vomiting after an E. coli outbreak on July 26. Many of the people who fell ill with E. coli in the states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana reported that they consumed food from Wendy’s restaurants within a week before becoming ill, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said last Friday.

The CDC reported a total of 84 people infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli as of last Friday afternoon with at least eight people developing HUS.