By EMILY HAILE, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Two more Maryland children were sickened by E. coli tied to a national outbreak, but their cases may not be from spinach consumption, state health officials said Tuesday.
A total of five Maryland children have been stricken by E. coli linked to the national strain, with more cases under investigation, officials said Monday.
As of Oct. 18, The Food and Drug Administration had confirmed the outbreak, linked to prepackaged spinach, in 26 states. The strain is responsible for at least three deaths, and has sickened at least 204 people, more than half of whom were hospitalized.
Maryland has confirmed two new cases since Sept. 22, when the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced that three children were recovering from illness after eating spinach before Sept. 14.
Neither child in the most recent cases was hospitalized, said health department spokesman John Hammond.
Yet in the two most recent cases, "the source does not appear to be spinach," said Dr. David Blythe, an epidemiologist with the health department investigating the cases. In both cases the parents said the children did not eat spinach. All of the children became sick before Oct. 1, he said.
DHMH would not release additional information about the victims, including their ages, hometowns and the source of contamination citing privacy concerns, said Hammond.
Two other Maryland cases, including one death, are still under investigation.
Health officials also declined to identify the unconfirmed victims or comment on these cases.
But the family of 86-year-old June E. Dunning of Hagerstown, who died Sept. 13, has raised concerns. Dunning died of complications from E. coli after eating spinach, though the state health department has not conclusively linked her death to the national outbreak.
Dunning's daughter, Corinne Swartz, filed a personal injury lawsuit against Dole Food Co. Inc. and Natural Selection Foods LLC, on Oct. 12, said Debbie Carr, a paralegal at the Seattle-based law firm Marler Clark.
Health officials have cast doubt on whether Dunning's case could ever be conclusively linked to the national outbreak.
"Certain DNA specimens are not available," said Dr. Michelle A. Gourdine, Maryland deputy secretary for Public Health Services, late last month.
Since Aug. 1, 15 E. coli cases, most unrelated to the spinach scare, have been confirmed in the state and a total of 27 have occurred so far this year, said Hammond.
Between 20 and 30 cases of E. coli sickness are reported in the state each year.
The Food and Drug Administration traced the recent outbreak to Natural Selection Foods based in San Juan Bautista, Calif. The company recalled all spinach products dated Oct. 1 or earlier and the investigation continues as to the precise source of contamination.
Federal and state investigators are taking samples of cow feces from four fields in California, and one sample has already tested positive for the national strain, according to the FDA. None of the fields are being used to grow produce, and warnings regarding the consumption of spinach have since been lifted.