Source of Lynden girl’s fatal E. coli infection remains unknown

Public health officials don’t know exactly how a 3-year-old Lynden girl contracted a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria.

But laboratory tests did show that Brooklyn Hoksbergen’s case wasn’t connected to that of two other young children who also were sickened recently by E. coli. One of them, a 4-year-old Oregon girl, has died.

Brooklyn started showing symptoms about a week before she was admitted to Seattle Children’s hospital Sept. 3. She died at the hospital two days later.

“We consider this a sporadic case with several possible exposures. We can’t determine which, if any, was the cause of her illness,” said Dr. Greg Stern, health officer with the Whatcom County Health Department. “We have no evidence that this case is related to the others. We can’t find any common exposures.”

By sporadic, Stern meant the cause was isolated and wasn’t tied to an outbreak.

He said the health department has ended its investigation.

Public health officials said determining what caused a specific case of E. coli is difficult. That may be due, in part, to the fact there are many possible sources, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Sometimes, because the exposure is to something that is gone by the time the person is sick,” Stern said. That includes food that’s been totally consumed so there’s nothing left to test, he said.

“Unless there’s a big outbreak, it’s hard to identify a specific source,” he said.

If an infection is part of the estimated 20 percent of cases that are part of a recognized outbreak, the CDC said, health departments might be able to identify the source.

No one else in the Hoksbergen family was sickened.

The type of the bacteria that makes people ill is the “Shiga toxin-producing” E. coli. An estimated 265,000 such infections occur in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC.

Whatcom County had a total of 64 cases of “Shiga toxin-producing” E. coli in the five years ending in 2013, with one adult dying in 2013, according to Stern.

“This is tragic,” Stern said. “We hope that people take the measures they can to keep it from happening. We’re not likely going to be able to eliminate the risk, but we can minimize it.”

To do so, people should wash their hands when handling raw meat and after coming in contact with animals. The CDC also recommends cooking meat thoroughly, avoiding unpasteurized milk, avoiding swallowing water while swimming, and washing cutting boards, counters and utensils to avoid cross-contamination when preparing food.

For more information on the public health risks, see the CDC’s Web page on E. Coli.