The Day

Bacteria from meat may cause more than 600K infections


For those wondering how they are getting urinary tract infections despite taking care of their hygiene and urinating after sex — two known ways to avoid the risk of UTIs — a new study suggests that bacteria from meat may be responsibl­e.

E. coli bacteria from meat is likely to cause hundreds of thousands of urinary tract infections in the U.S. each year, says a George Washington University study published Thursday.

Eighty-five percent of UTIs are caused by E. coli, and 8 percent of these infections are acquired from meat, according to the research.

The study, published in the journal One Health, looked at 1,188 samples of E. coli from humans and 1,923 samples from meat, including chicken, turkey and pork, in Flagstaff, Ariz., and estimated, for the first time, that foodborne E. coli strains may be causing as many as 640,000 UTIs each year.

“Most people understand that eating uncooked meat, or accidental­ly ingesting bacteria from meat, can cause you to have an upset stomach,” said Lance B. Price, a professor of environmen­tal and occupation­al health at GWU. “But now we also know that specific varieties of E. coli, coming from raw meat, are also causing hundreds of thousands of UTIs.”

Price said the study has expanded the understand­ing of what a foodborne infection can look like and how it can be prevented.

The team of scientists, which included Cindy Liu from the GWU Milken Institute School of Public Health, used a genomic approach to track the origins of E. coli infections.

“E. coli bacteria adapts to its host, so each sample of bacteria we found had its own packet of DNA,” Price said. “We then developed a statistica­l model which analyzed all that DNA and predicted whether that bacteria came from an animal, and if so, which animal.”

UTIs are extremely common in the United States; about 6 million to 8 million people get them annually.

Women are at highest risk of contractin­g UTIs because of their anatomies, Price said. Children and older people also are at higher risk than other groups for reason including the use of diapers, incontinen­ce or limited access to bathrooms, he said.

UTIs most commonly result in bladder infections, which are recognizab­le through pain or a burning sensation while urinating, frequent urination, blood in the urine, or cramps in the groin or lower abdomen, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some UTIs also can lead to more serious kidney infections; symptoms include fever, chills, back pain, and nausea or vomiting, or life-threatenin­g blood infections, according to the CDC.

“Blood stream infections with E. coli kill 36,000 to 40,000 people a year in the United States,” Price said. “Reducing the number of infections spreading through E. coli that comes from meat will be a big contributi­on.”

Data from the Food and Drug Administra­tion suggests that most raw meat products are contaminat­ed with E. coli., and the GWU study found that 81.7 percent of the 2,460 meat products they tested carried E. coli.

E. coli can live in people and food animals. When animals are slaughtere­d, the bacteria living inside them can contaminat­e meat products and cause infections if the meat is ingested by humans.

Before they find a chance to travel from the gastrointe­stinal tract to the urinary tract and trigger infections, E. coli bacteria that cause UTIs can live in the gut for a while, earning them the title of “opportunis­tic pathogens.”

“It can a be a long time between your exposure to the meat and the time that you actually got the urinary tract infection,” Price said.

Earlier messaging was that E. coli infections could be prevented by ensuring that meat was well-cooked, avoiding cross contaminat­ion, which includes washing hands and the cutting board after handling meat, and minimizing exposure to raw meat.

Understand­ing the new foodborne route of UTIs, on which the study focuses, has opened the door for new interventi­ons — vaccinatio­ns.

“We have identified the really risky strains of E. coli in animals,” Price said. “And now we can vaccinate them against these specific bacteria, resulting in a win-win for public health as well as the animal industry.”

Vaccinatin­g the animals against six of the most dangerous strains of bacteria will ensure that they do not enter the food supply.

Price said concerned citizens could call lawmakers in Congress to ask that the Department of Agricultur­e put more money toward food safety, including eliminatin­g dangerous bacteria from food animals.

“We needed new ways to prevent these infections, and this is opening that door for us,” he said. “This study puts even more responsibi­lity on food and animal producers to prevent these bacteria from making their way into the food supply.”

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