Is the E. coli outbreak that has killed at least 22 people, sickened more than 2,200, and caused widespread fear throughout Europe a case of a bad turn by Mother Nature or the result of a more sinister attack?

After all, E. coli has been identified by government officials and scientists as a potential bioterrorism agent.

Bioterrorism is defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as the intentional use of bacteria, viruses or natural toxins as a weapon to kill, injure or produce disease in people, animals or plants. Terrorists may use this kind of attack to create fear, disrupt the economy, or to get a response from the government.

Let me clarify that I don’t think there’s a need for alarm just yet, but there are a couple of things that are unique about this particular strain, compared to E. coli we’ve seen in the past.
I talked to my colleague, Dr. Philip Tierno – aka “Dr. Germ” – to find out a little more about this killer.

“This strain (0104:H4) is a hyper-toxin producer, which means it produces more toxins than the usual strain, and causes hemolytic uremic syndrome (a complication of an E. coli infection that can lead to kidney failure) at approximately double the rate of the E. coli 0157:H7 strain that we commonly see here in the United States,” he told me over the phone.

It appears to have genes that lead to both bloody diarrhea and kidney failure, as well as resistance to 14 kinds of antibiotics instead of just one. It also lacks an adhesion gene, which means the bug may have found a new way to bind itself inside the body.

In his 42 years at the department of microbiology at NYU School of Medicine, Tierno said he has never seen the 0104:H4 strain – not once – ever.

“The toxin is carried by what is called a bacteriophage (viruses that infect bacteria), and could migrate from strain to strain – that’s why it’s so powerful,” he said.

What I find most curious is the target of this strain – statistics show that an unusually high number of adult women have fallen victim to the bug. Normally, E. coli often affects children and the elderly.

Now, there are a number of potential explanations for this outbreak, which biologists say may be the largest and deadliest in all of history. At this point, it’s impossible to pin the cause down on any one theory.

Tierno said in his opinion, it’s not a bioterrorism incident, but he also said nothing can be 100 percent ruled out.

However, I do believe it is important to consider all possibilities, and perhaps view what has happened in Europe as a warning: E. coli is a potentially deadly pathogen that can spread rapidly and widely, whether in the hands of terrorists or Mother Nature. It is vitally important to practice proper techniques in food preparation – including washing the food and/or cooking it at proper temperatures.

As far as I’m concerned, the few extra minutes those measures will take is well worth it to ensure the health and safety of you and your family.