Coincidental illnesses causing concern

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 9, 2000

Elisa Carr is glad to have her 14-month-old daughter, Morgan, back at the family’s Beau Pre Road home after four hospital stays in almost as many weeks.

A month ago, Elisa and her husband, Bill, took their daughter to Natchez Community Hospital where the child was admitted with bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps.

Because the symptoms were so similar, the Carrs at first thought Morgan had been reinfected with salmonella, which she had been diagnosed with the previous May.

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After a five-day hospital stay, the Carrs returned home and resumed life as usual until Morgan’s pediatrician, Dr. David Timm, called with results of Morgan’s lab tests.

&uot;It just blew us out of the water when he said ‘E. coli,’&uot; Carr said.

E. coli, or Escherichia coli, is the general term for a common type of bacteria found in the intestines of humans and animals.

Much more dangerous is E. coli 0157:H7, one of five particular strains of the bacteria which can lead to other complications, including a condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. About 2 to 7 percent of E. coli infections lead to the syndrome, which destroys red blood cells and causes kidney failure. Children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are especially susceptible to the bacterium’s harmful effects.

Because the Natchez Pathology Lab, where many area physicians — including Timm — send their samples is not equipped to &uot;type out&uot; pathogen cultures, the Carrs may never know if their daughter had 0157.

Most cases of 0157 have been traced to eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef or contact with infected persons in child care centers. But it can be contracted by drinking raw milk or swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water, experts say.

The unanswered questions leave the Cars wondering how their child became infected. Their search eventually led to a boil-water notice in their neighborhood and the discovery of two cases of similar illnesses in neighborhood children.

&uot;We just wanted to start from the top and work our way down,&uot; Carr said, explaining the search began with the tap water Morgan used for bathing and brushing her teeth. Since the bout with salmonella, the Carrs said they used bottled water for mixing Morgan’s formula, with only a few exceptions.

Carr said she contacted the Adams County Health Department and requested it check her water supply. She was referred to the Adams County Water Association, and Manager Ken Herring and another employee visited her home on June 6 to collect water samples.

According to a report issued by the state Department of Health, five water samples were taken that day: three by the ACWA and two by the Adams County Health Department.

Four of the samples tested positive for E. coli. Those included both samples taken by the health department at the Carr residence; one sample taken by ACWA at the Carr residence; and one sample taken by ACWA at a neighboring residence. The ACWA responded by issuing a boil-water notice to several Beau Pre Road residents while more samples were taken. All samples taken from June 9 to the present have tested negative for contamination, Herring said.

At Herring’s request, representatives from the state health and water departments visited the Beau Pre Road area on June 21.

Keith Allen, director of the South Mississippi Engineering Services Branch, was part of the investigative team and author of the MDH report, which said three of the four positive samples from June 6 were &uot;suspect&uot; due to improper sampling procedures.

&uot;There is no way to determine if bacteria in the original samples was due to actual contamination or improper sampling procedures,&uot; the report stated.

After reviewing the ACWA sampling procedures and boil-water notices, Allen’s report concluded the contamination appeared to be an isolated incident, if it occurred in the first place. &uot;You’re talking about a very limited contamination, if there was a contamination at all,&uot; Allen said.

Herring said the MDH report &uot;cleared Adams County Water of any wrong-doing.&uot;

The report also mentions other findings made by investigators during their visit, including open raw sewage on the Carr’s property.

Carr said the sewage runs from a field line in the backyard as a result of septic tank overflow. Many residences located in rural Adams County have such overflow lines, and Carr said the investigators told her when they visited that they did not think it was possible for the sewage to get into the water supply.

A week after the boil-water notice was lifted along Beau Pre Road, another child in the area was hospitalized with symptoms similar to Morgan’s. Stephanie Wheeler, who lives on U.S. 61 South about 3 miles from the Carrs, said her 1-year-old son was admitted to Natchez Community Hospital June 17. Wheeler said Timm diagnosed her son with E. coli at first, but later said it was a bacterial infection.

&uot;I had noticed the day before we took him to the hospital that the water was brown and dingy,&uot; Wheeler said. She called the state water board and requested it test her water.

Those samples tested negative for E. coli and were declared free of bacterial contamination. &uot;The water company and health department said there was nothing wrong with my water,&uot; Wheeler said. Still, she said her son now drinks only bottled water and his bath water is sterilized.

The coincidence was enough to prompt another call from Carr to the Adams County Water Association.

Herring said samples continued to test negative for infection, and the department had documentation that the June 6 contamination had been confined to a particular residence. And, because of that, he said the water association had no reason to believe the illnesses were caused by water contamination.

Another child, the 1-year-old daughter of Dustin Owen, who lives at 122A Beau Pre Road, has also been sick. Owen said he and his wife boiled the water for their child’s formula, as well as her bottle nipples, until she was several months old. Soon after they stopped, their daughter became sick. She was diagnosed with salmonella in fall 1999 and hospitalized for six days, Owen said. Since then, Owen said his child only drinks bottled water, even in lemonade and tea, and she has not been sick.

The coincidences may prove just that, but for the Carrs, the concerns remain. On June 21, the same day the state investigators visited the Beau Pre Road area, Morgan’s lingering symptoms worsened and she was readmitted to the hospital.

A week later, after visiting a pediatrician specializing in digestive disorders in Jackson, Morgan entered the hospital a fourth time. While Morgan is home for now, Carr said she plans to see the Jackson gastroenterologist again this week. &uot;My priorities have changed,&uot; she said. &uot;Right now, I’m worried about getting my little girl well.&uot;

Carr is quick to point out she is not interested in placing blame on anyone, including ACWA. &uot;I don’t want to point fingers at anybody,&uot; she said. &uot;I just want to locate the problem and fix it so that nobody else, especially children, will get sick like mine has.&uot;