A mysterious outbreak of E. coli here in Oregon has left one child dead and resulted in injuries to two others, leaving parents and public health officials alike struggling for answers here in the Pacific Northwest.
As The Oregonian reported last week “all three children – ages 3, 4 and 5 – were at birthday parties in Lebanon on August 23. All three were exposed to recreational water and ate watermelon. All three suffered kidney failure.” Though it is worth adding that the children were not all attending the same birthday party (two were at one party and the third child was at a different party) the similarity of the cases does raise significant questions, particularly whether something in the food they ate may have been tainted.
As the newspaper notes, in the wake of these injuries to several children state health officials in both Washington and Oregon have been interviewing the parents as well as other adults in an effort to track and isolate the cause of the outbreak. “Without a solid culprit, such as an undercooked hamburger, epidemiologists can link cases with DNA tests on the bacteria,” the paper notes.
Even as the investigation continues there are some critical lessons that the rest of us can draw. The E. coli outbreak is a reminder of how important public health services are for all of us, and of the important role government plays in ensuring that the food we eat is safe and safely prepared. That includes not only how food is cooked, but how it is processed, transported and stored. From a public health perspective, the most critical stages for many of the things we eat occur long before they reach our plates, or even the shelves of the stores where we shop.
As an Oregon and Washington lawyer who focuses on cases involving injuries to children I’ll be watching developments in this case closely in the weeks and months to come. Officials are working to figure out exactly what tainted items these children consumed, and where those items came from – by which I mean their ultimate sources, not just the stores or restaurants that sold them to the parents. Their conclusions may open up a broader chain of responsibility, highlighting the importance of proper safety and sanitary procedures along our entire food chain.