Animal Health Verocytotoxigenic Escherichia coli
Verocytotoxigenic Escherichia coli (VTEC) is a bacterium that causes diarrhea or sudden death in some animals. It can also cause life-threatening disease in humans. Proper preparation of food is important in preventing the disease in humans.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) are normal inhabitants of the gastrointestinal tract of animals and humans. Some strains of E. coli, such as VTEC, cause diarrhea and a range of other diseases in animals and humans. VTEC bacteria contain specialized structures that attach to the lining of the intestine and produce toxins that damage the lining of blood vessels. The disease can be triggered by improper use of antibiotics and stressors such as feed changes, weaning, moving to a different pen or mixing with different groups of animals. E. coli O157:H7 is one of a number of virulent types of VTEC in humans.
Cattle and sheep carry the bacteria without any signs of illness. VTEC bacteria can cause edema disease in pigs, usually after weaning and between the age of 4 and 12 weeks. The disease appears suddenly, beginning with incoordination of the hind limbs and progressing to total paralysis and death. There may also be swelling of the eyelids and of the face but this can be difficult to see. The disease does not appear to spread, but affects the best growing pigs (Figure 1).
Call your veterinarian for advice about VTEC infections. Your veterinarian can give recommendations that are specific to your farm. Antibiotics may be effective in some cases, and temporary feed reductions may be helpful.
Prevention and Management
After weaning piglets, make feed changes gradually over a period of several days. A nutritionist can provide advice on the best way to feed your animals without limiting their performance.
Proper hygiene and general cleanliness will minimize the risk of VTEC infections. Consult your veterinarian before giving antibiotics to your livestock.
Transmission to Humans
VTEC can cause stomach cramps, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and sometimes fever. Up to 10% of infected individuals can also develop kidney failure. The infection can be fatal in humans.
Poor hand-washing technique and improper food handling are factors that contribute to the spread of this illness in people. Animal handlers should wash their hands thoroughly before eating, drinking or smoking. People can get VTEC from consuming improperly cooked beef or raw milk, or from fruits, vegetables or drinking water contaminated with manure. Always cook meat properly; store and handle fruits and vegetables separately from meat products. Always wash fruits and vegetables before eating them. An infected person can also spread the disease from person to person by hand to mouth contact.
Veterinary laboratories in Ontario and veterinarians who use a laboratory outside of Ontario must report diagnoses of VTEC to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs (OMAF and MRA). OMAF and MRA will monitor trends of the disease and will work with public health officials in cases where people are exposed.
For more information on animal health, go to www.ontario.ca/animalhealth.
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