Because enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (ETEC) is not identified by routine stool culture methods, ETEC outbreaks may go unrecognized, and opportunities for treatment and prevention may be missed. To improve recognition of adult ETEC outbreaks, we compared them with reported outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis. During 1975–95, we identified 14 ETEC outbreaks in the United States and 7 on cruise ships, caused by 17 different serotypes and affecting 5683 persons. Median symptom prevalences were: diarrhoea 99%, abdominal cramps 82%, nausea 49%, fever 22%, vomiting 14%. The median incubation period was 42 h, and for 8 of 10 outbreaks, the mean or median duration of illness was >72 h (range 24–264). For 17 (81%) ETEC outbreaks, but for only 2 (8%) viral outbreaks, the prevalence of diarrhoea was [ges ]2·5 times the prevalence of vomiting. ETEC outbreaks may be differentiated from viral gastroenteritis outbreaks by a diarrhoea-to-vomiting prevalence ratio of [ges ]2·5 and a longer duration of illness.
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