28 cases of E. coli confirmed at camp

Twenty-eight cases of E. coli infection have now been confirmed among teenagers who attended a cheerleading camp at Eastern Washington University in mid-July, state health officials said yesterday.

One of the cheerleaders is in serious condition in Spokane's Sacred Heart Hospital with a complication of the disease: hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, which can lead to permanent kidney damage.

Melanie Rose of the Spokane Regional Health District said yesterday that the Spokane resident was hospitalized Saturday. At least six other girls, all hospitalized for dehydration, have recovered, Rose said.

HUS often requires temporary dialysis and blood transfusions. It is fatal in about 4 percent of cases and in about 8 percent of cases leads to other permanent complications, including high blood pressure, seizures, blindness and the effects of having the bowel removed.

None of the cheerleaders' illnesses is linked to the nationwide recall of 19 million pounds of ground beef by ConAgra of Greeley, Colo.

Spokane County health officials still are interviewing the girls about what they ate and are talking with food workers at Eastern, in Cheney, Spokane County.

"The investigation is still wide open," Rose said.

Overall, about half of the 90 girls who attended the July 11-14 camp have shown symptoms, health officials said.

Water samples from the campus showed no evidence of the bacteria, Rose said. Samples of different foods are being tested by state health officials. Results are expected this week.

No cases of infection with the bacteria, E. coli O157:H7, in King County have been linked to the cheerleading camp or to ConAgra. Officials said they had not heard of any of the product being distributed in King County.

Meanwhile, a Spokane-area grocery chain, Tidymans, has said it received ground beef from ConAgra and pulled it from its shelves, said Tim Church, spokesman for the state Department of Health.

E. coli O157:H7 samples from a Spokane man who was sickened in late June showed the same genetic pattern as the bacteria from tainted ConAgra ground beef. Church said the man, now recovered, bought ground beef at several stores, including Tidymans. Health officials still are investigating whether any of the product might have reached other stores.

Jim Herlihy, ConAgra vice president for communications, said consumers "as a precaution" should check with their retailer about any ground beef they bought with "use by" or "freeze by" dates from April 30, 2002, through July 17, 2002. He said the company sells its product to wholesalers and that it is sold retail under many different labels.

The labels on all recalled products bear the establishment code "EST. 969" inside the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seal of inspection.

Consumers can protect against infection by cooking all beef, including hamburger, to an internal temperature of 160 degrees or until all the pink is gone and the juice runs clear. Uncooked beef should not touch other food, and everyone should wash their hands before handling food, health officials said.

Warren King: 206-464-2247 or wking@seattletimes.com.