A huge increase in the potentially deadly VTEC E.coli bug has been reported by the HSE, and 13 children have so far this year been hit by a life-threatening complication of the bug that affects the kidneys.
In a major outbreak, the number of VTEC cases has trebled this year, leaving some children at risk of potential kidney failure.
The bug, which can be contracted from contaminated food and water, usually causes mild illness, although severe bloody diarrhoea may result from it.
However, in around 5% to 8% of cases VTEC can cause a life-threatening condition-haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), which leads to kidney failure. HUS is more likely to occur in children under five and the elderly.
The HSE has confirmed that there have so far this year been 13 cases of VTEC-associated HUS, and all of these cases have occurred in children. However, the HSE stressed there have been no deaths reported.
Asked how seriously ill the children concerned are, the HSE told irishhealth.com that the children 'have either recovered or are in recovery.'
Pressed on how many of the children were likely to suffer from kidney damage or other long-term effects as a result of developing HUS, a HSE spokesman said there may be long term sequelae but this was not clear at this stage.
The current outbreak has occurred in a number of childcare facilities in the current outbreak, the HSE said.
The health executive says it is currrently investigating why there had been such a major increase in VTEC cases.
Most of the cases in he current outbreak have occurred in rural areas.
It said part of this year's increase can be explained by improved sensitivity of lab testing methods.
The HSE says usually, around one-in-10 people who develop HUS die from the condition.
Provisional figures show a 200% increase in the number of VTEC cases in the first half of 2012 compared with the same period last year, according to the HSE's assistant head of health protection, Dr Kevin Kelleher.
However, no deaths have been confirmed to date in the current outbreak, the HSE said.
Figures for up to last week show there have now been 274 VTEC cases this year, including 33 alone in the week ending July 14.
A multi-agency group has been formed in a bid to deal with the consquences of the outbreak.
A HSE spokesperson said the current outbreak in Ireland came from a number of different strains of the VTEC E.coli bug.
However, the specific VTEC bug strain linked to a deadly outbreak in Germany last year is not believed to involved in the current outbreak in Ireland.
Dr Kelleher said some private water supplies have been found to be contaminated with one of the VTEC strains currently affecting people and this contamination was likely to be due to the recent heavy rainfall.
The HSE says VTEC outbreaks can be caused by a number of factors including water and food contamination and person-to person contact.
It has reported eight recent outbreaks of VTEC involving childcare facilities, and 56% of cases reported were in children under five.
So far, 212 VTEC cases have been reported in the first six months of this year compared to 69 for the same period in 2011. There have been 13 cases of VTEC-associated HUS, all in children. It is believed that some of the HUS cases were in children under five.
The German VTEC outbreak last year caused 45 deaths. Initially, there were contradictory reports about the source of this outbreak, but the German Ministry of Agriculture eventually reported that seeds of fenugreek imported from Egypt were the likely source .
Ireland has for a number of years had the highest levels of VTEC in the European Union, according to the HSE's Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC)
This is due, in large part, to the fact that Ireland has high numbers of cattle and sheep, which can be a source of VTEC infection.
The HSE says it has initiated a multi-agency group comprising the Department of Health, the Department of Agriculture and Food, the HSE, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, safefood, Teagasc, the Environmental Protection Agency and local authorities to look at both short term and medium term actions to deal with this problem.
"Actions will include the roll-out of awareness campaigns for the public, farming communities and childcare facilities as well as on-going liaison with these groups,” says Dr Kelleher.
The HSE says the public can help prevent the spread of VTEC by:
* Careful handwashing.
* Chlorinating or ultraviolet-treating well-water before using for drinking.
* Making sure meat is fully cooked, as VTEC is killed by heat.
* Staying away from work, school or childcare facilities if you have diarrhoea.
The HSE says childcare workers and creche owners must ensure that they have policies and practices that will help prevent the transmission of VTEC.
Read more information about VTEC here
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