The E. coli outbreak from romaine lettuce has now left 149 people ill – nearly half of whom battling the infection in hospitals across 29 states.
Of those, 17 are in kidney failure due to Shiga-toxin, a substance produced by E. coli and listed as a potential bioterrorism agent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today.
Last week, the agency reported that the outbreak had claimed its first life, killing one person in California.
It’s unclear if new illness are still occurring. There’s a lag in reporting, and the most recent illness began two weeks ago.
Florida, Minnesota, North Dakota and Texas have joined the list of states reporting at least one E. coli illness linked to the outbreak.
Health officials have tied the outbreak to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, Arizona, which provides most of the romaine sold in the US during the winter.
Women account for 63 percent of the infections reported so far.
Shiga-toxin-producing E. coli – the kind involved in this outbreak – is so potent that the Department of Homeland Security even lists it as a potential agent of biological warfare.
The toxin binds to white blood cells, riding to them to the kidneys where it breaks into the heart of cells.
Cell death triggers the body to send red blood cells to the kidneys, causing clots and kidney failure.
Since last week, another four people have gone into kidney failure, and an additional 23 have been sickened overall.
That number is likely to climb, however, as the CDC reports that it takes an average of three weeks between the time a person falls ill and when the additional case is reported to the agency.
The CDC continues to track the progress of the outbreak, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) attempts to sleuth out its source.
Last week saw the first major revelation in the FDA’s efforts, as the agency revealed that the eight prisoners sickened by E. coli in Alaska had gotten eaten whole head romaine from Harrison Farms in Yuma, Arizona.
Though the contaminated lettuce is thought to come solely from the Yuma area, another two dozen farms are under investigation, and the FDA currently believes that only the Alaska illnesses were related to Harrison’s romaine.
Some 90 percent of the leafy greens sold in the US during the winter months – between November and March – are estimated to come from the Yuma area.
The contaminated romaine distributed by Harrison was harvested between March 5 and March 16.
This means the greens are long expired, so Harrison has not been instructed to issue a recall. The farm is now growing grass where the lettuce once was.
Last week the FDA confirmed that the harvesting season was over for romaine in Yuma, and that any lettuce picked then has now expired.
However, as illnesses continue to pile up, regulators maintain tight guidelines for consumer, grocers and restaurants: when in doubt, throw it out.