HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Investigators with the Hawaii Department of Health are looking into new cases of a highly infectious bacteria. At least nine people have now become ill from E. coli O157:H7.
The confirmed cases consist of three adults and six children. All of them live on Oahu except for a Canadian visitor who spent time on Oahu, but was later diagnosed on the Big Island. Officials are having trouble pinpointing the source of the infections.
"We're having a very difficult time making any connections. A person in Kaneohe, one in Kalihi, one somewhere else. Different age group," explained Joe Elm from the Disease Outbreak and Control Division of the Hawaii Department of Health.
Most E. coli strains are harmless, but this particular one makes a powerful toxin that can lead to severe infection. Authorities aren't sure what is causing this cluster of cases, but the illness can come from undercooked beef and unwashed produce.
Oahu healthcare providers recently received a letter from health officials warning them to be on the lookout for E. coli O157:H7. Around the same time, Dr. James Ireland saw a 67-year-old patient with symptoms like severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
"A notice came back from the lab that he did have the E. coli O157:H7 strain and then continued to not do well as an outpatient," said Ireland, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the John A. Burns School of Medicine.
Ireland said the man is now recovering after being hospitalized. There have been a total of 11 cases so far this year, including two unrelated to the current cluster. There were 20 last year, 9 the previous year, and 29 in 2010.
According to the state, three of the children in this latest group developed a life-threatening complication called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome.
"This is where blood cells are actually destroyed and those products can clog up the kidney which can lead to temporary or sometimes even permanent kidney failure," said Ireland.
This bacterial strain caused a serious outbreak on the mainland 20 years ago. 4 children died and 700 people became sick from undercooked hamburgers sold at Jack in the Box restaurants.
Health officials want to make sure that a similar tragedy doesn't happen in Hawaii. They're questioning the patients to try to get to the bottom of this mystery.
"Is it contaminated meat? Is it produce? Some of the cases on the mainland last year were linked to leafy greens," said Ireland.
"The numbers aren't surprising. The fact that we haven't been able to sort of corner it yet it is the frustrating part," Elm said.
Elm said that all of the patients are recovering and only one is still hospitalized.
Experts encourage people to wash their hands, avoid undercooked beef, and to thoroughly clean produce to avoid getting sick.