E.Coli cases now exceed 40 in Kentucky. Source: Kentucky Department for Public Health

An E. coli outbreak in Kentucky has now doubled to more than 40 cases, according to the Kentucky Department for Public Health.

The department confirmed Thursday that Kentucky now has at least 46 cases involving a strain of E. coli O103.

The department issued a news release last Friday, saying that 20 Kentuckians had tested positive for a Shiga-toxin producing strain that can lead to kidney failure. The number of known hospitalizations remains at six.

Some two dozen counties, including Shelby and Fayette, have reported cases in this outbreak, according to the department. Many of the initial patients were in central Kentucky but there also have been cases in northern, eastern and western Kentucky.

Cases also have been identified in Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio and Virginia, according to the department. A representative of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had no immediate information to convey Thursday.

The specific source of the outbreak is still being investigated, but a food source is suspected based on the interview responses of affected individuals, according to the department.

“Exposure to E. coli bacteria can be debilitating and potentially life-threatening, especially for small children and individuals with weakened immune systems,” Kentucky Public Health Commissioner Jeffrey Howard said last week. “With this in mind, the Department for Public Health has taken swift action to identify patients, ensure appropriate testing, and follow-up care as we work to determine the source of the outbreak.”

Also, health care providers across the state “have been alerted to this potential threat and are working with us to make sure patients are identified and are receiving appropriate care,” he said. “Meanwhile, we encourage all Kentuckians to be aware of the signs and symptoms of E. coli illness and to seek care if they are ill.”

People generally become ill two to five days after consuming tainted food, according to the department. Symptoms of infection include stomach cramps and diarrhea, which is sometimes bloody.

It’s also possible to develop a potentially life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). The condition requires hospitalization because the kidneys may stop working, according to the CDC.

“Clues that a person is developing HUS include decreased frequency of urination, feeling very tired and losing pink color in cheeks and inside the lower eyelids,” the CDC notes. “Most persons with HUS recover within a few weeks, but some suffer permanent damage or die.”

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To reduce your risk of becoming infected with E. coli, the department recommends that you:

  • Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water, especially before eating, after going to the bathroom, handling raw meat and eggs, and after handling or petting animals.
  • Wash produce thoroughly before eating.
  • Cook meats thoroughly.
  • Clean and sanitize food preparation areas.
  • Avoid swallowing lake or pool water.
  • Make sure your milk is pasteurized.
  • Keep restrooms clean and sanitized. Don’t forget the doorknobs and faucets.
  • Report diarrheal illnesses to your physician.

This story has been updated with the names of other states and information about why a food source is suspected. The number of cases also has been updated.

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Darla Carter
Darla Carter is a hometown girl who recently joined the staff of Insider Louisville to mostly cover health. She previously served as a longtime health and fitness writer for The Courier-Journal, where she also worked for the Metro, Neighborhoods and Features departments. Prior to that, the award-winning journalist wrote for newspapers elsewhere in Kentucky and Tennessee, covering a range of topics, from education to courts. She's a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where she studied journalism and philosophy, and is the proud mom of two young children.