There are several variants of E. coli and they can be found in a healthy human gut. But the deadly Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a leading cause of foodborne illness. It is believed that this strain evolved in the digestive system of grain fed cattle on large industrial farms. On these farms, grain is used as cattle feed because it is nutrient-packed and increases efficiency. A side effect of feeding grain to cattle is that it increases the acidity of their stomach — and it is in this acidic gut that the deadly O157:H7 thrives.
Eating meat, especially ground beef, that has not been cooked sufficiently to kill E. coli O157:H7 can cause infection. Contaminated meat looks and smells normal. The number of organisms required to cause disease is very small. Among other known sources of infection the are consumption of salami, unpasteurized milk and juice, and by swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water.
Once a person is infected, the first symptom is diarrhea and stomach cramps. It should also be noted that infection is highly contagious. The large majority of people usually recover completely. A small percentage of those infected have immediate complications with lifelong implications. These could include blindness, paralysis, persistent kidney failure, and the effects of having part of their bowel removed. Many persons with hemolytic uremic syndrome have mild abnormalities in kidney function many years later.
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