Gastrointestinal Infections Alert

Increase in gastrointestinal infections in the North East

Date: 28th April 2021

The Health Protection Team (HPT) in the Department of Public Health, HSE North East would like to advise the public to take extra care when in contact with farm animals following an increase in the numbers of cryptosporidiosis and VTEC (E. coli)infections in recent weeks. The majority of the infections have occurred in children under the age of ten.

Parents and caregivers of children attending crèches and primary schools are advised to monitor their children to see if they develop the symptoms of diarrhoea, particularly if you notice any blood in stools, as then they should seek prompt medical attention with their General Practitioner (GP) or GP out of hours service.

To date in 2021, there have been 33 cases of cryptosporidiosis and 20 cases of VTEC infections in the North East region, with a minority of these being hospitalised and all are recovering or recovered. In comparison for all of 2020, there were 24 cases of cryptosporidiosis and 79 cases of VTEC reported in the North East.

Commenting on the increase in notifications, Dr Keith Ian Quintyne, Specialist in Public Health Medicine with the Department of Public Health, HSE North East, said; “Investigations have not identified any clusters or outbreaks, but it has highlighted that the majority of cases in children have had interaction with farm animals. I would like to remind parents and caregivers of the importance of practicing good hand hygiene after touching or handling animals.”

Cryptosporidiosis is a diarrhoeal disease caused by a microscopic parasite (Cryptosporidium). Once an animal or person is infected, the parasite lives in the intestine and passes in the stool. The parasite is protected by an outer shell that allows it to survive outside the body for long periods and makes it very resistant to chlorine based disinfectants. It can survive temperatures greater than 70°C. It is found (particularly in water) through the world.

VTEC usually causes a mild illness that most people recover completely without any problems. However, VTEC produces a toxin that may damage the bowel wall causing severe bloody diarrhoea. In about 5 – 8% of cases, the infection causes a life-threatening complication called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS). In HUS, the red blood cells are destroyed and kidney failure occurs. HUS is more likely to occur in children under 5 years old and the elderly. VTEC infection usually requires no specific treatment other than ensuring plenty of fluids are taken. Family members and playmates of these children are at high risk of also becoming infected.

Dr Augustine Pereira, Director of Public Health in the North East, said; “As we’ve all come to realise during COVID-19, clean hands saves lives. This is true for many infectious diseases. The risk of gastrointestinal infections can be dramatically reduced through handwashing. It is essential to wash your hands using soap and water after touching or handling animals and children do not put their hands near their mouth after petting animals. By being aware and cleaning our hands we can help to avoid illness and enjoy the outdoors.”

The HSE has issued national alerts to the public recently because of the increasing numbers of these infections across Ireland, and have offered advice to the public on ways in which they could avoid infection and the importance of good hand-washing practices.  

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