In an outbreak of gastroenteritis on 23 July 1996, in Osaka, Japan, 54 of 91 persons who had attended a meeting the previous day became ill. Escherichia coli O166[ratio ]H15 was isolated from stool specimens of patients (29/33, 88%). Laboratory tests for other bacterial pathogens and viruses were negative. The E. coli O166 organisms did not adhere to HEp-2 cells in a localized, diffuse, or enteroaggregative manner. The organisms did not express known enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC) colonization factors. In polymerase chain reaction tests, the bacteria did not have coding genes for shigatoxin of enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), heat-labile, or heat-stable enterotoxin of ETEC, attachment and effacement (eaeA) of EPEC, or invasion (invE) of enteroinvasive E. coli (EIEC). Consequently, they could not be assigned to any of the recognized diarrhoeagenic groups of E. coli: EPEC, ETEC, EHEC, EIEC, enteroaggregative E. coli (EAggEC), or diffusely adhering E. coli. However, the organisms possessed the EAggEC heat-stable enterotoxin (EAST1) gene. To our knowledge, this is the first report of an outbreak caused by E. coli that did not have well-characterized virulence genes other than EAST1. The isolates showed the same DNA banding pattern in pulsed-field gel electrophoresis after digestion with the restriction enzymes XbaI or NotI. Three O166[ratio ]H15 strains isolated from two sporadic cases and another outbreak during 1997–8 were distinct, indicating that multiple clones have spread already. We propose that diarrhoeal specimens should be examined for E. coli possessing the EAST1 gene.
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