Organic-food lovers and travellers back from Europe with upset stomachs need not fret about being infected with the deadly e coli-strain that has killed 39 people and sickened 3,000, people in Europe in one short month. Most stomach infections in India, say expert, need no treatment other than increasing fluid intake. You don’t even need a doctor unless you spot blood in their stools.
Escherichia coli — e. coli for short — is a common bacteria found in a healthy gut. Though it is one of the most frequent causes of infections leading to diarrhoea, inflammation of gall bladder, biliary tract and urinary tract infections, very few strains produce toxins that cause infection serious enough to cause kidney failure, leading to death.
Following the outbreak in Europe that was suspected to have originated from contaminated bean sprouts from an organic farm, India’s Central Board of Excise and Customs increased the surveillance on food imports from Europe. The Board also asked the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to issue “no objection certificates” to customs before approving clearances for fresh fruit and vegetable consignments.
Since e. coli bacteria is found abundantly in organic manure, the risk of contamination is higher in organic produce.
“Although data suggests that we have not imported fruits and vegetables from Europe in the recent months, we have issued advisory to authorised officers at all the ports. We have also asked them to test samples of all fresh fruit and vegetable consignments imported from Europe as a precautionary measure,” said Sumita Mukherjee, director, FSSAI. Data from Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) shows that produce from India’s organic farming industry— estimated at US $ 20 millions— is almost entirely exported. The import size of fruit and vegetables is comparatively very “small”.
There is, however, no need to fear e. coli contamination of locally-produced organic foods as data from laboratories in India show no traces of e. coli O157:H7— the strain responsible for the European outbreak — having made its way into India.
No sign of trouble
Even doctors at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences, which receives 10,000 patients a day, have not noticed a spike in serious illness.
“We have been routinely seeing patients down with diarrhoea but there is nothing atypical. Non-invasive or travellers’ diarrhoea caused by enterotoxigenic e. coli (ETEC) is fairly common but invasive or bloody diarrhoea caused by Shigatoxenic e coli (STEC) is not seen often,” said a doctor from the department of medicine, unwilling to be named.
“There was an e. coli outbreak about two decades ago because of sewage water getting mixed with drinking water because of leaky pipes, but there’s been no cluster of infection after that,” says a doctor who did not want to be named since he is not authorized to speak to the press.
Earlier in April this year, Lancet Infectious Diseases reported the presence of STEC in Delhi’s environment. “There is so much e-coli all over the place that most people in India have higher immunity against it as compared to all other countries,” says Dr Arvind Taneja, specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at Max hospital, Saket.
Wait and watch
“Smaller clusters of mild infection go unnoticed as the disease-causing strain is not usually identified,” says Dr Navin Dang, microbiologist and director, Dr Dang’s Lab at Hauz Khas, where 10-15 samples for diarrhoea symptoms are tested each day.
“E coli bacteria is present in the gut of all healthy people but it does not make them sick. Unless it is a deadly strain causing bleeding in stool—no medication is needed. You only need to increase fluid intake to maintain electrolyte balance,” he says.