Most strains of Escherichia coli form part of the normal intestinal microflora in humans and warm-blooded animals. However, some strains have the ability to cause disease in humans through the presence of specific virulence factors. This section of the website provides information on Vero cytotoxin-producing E. coli (VTEC*) which are gastrointestinal pathogens. For details on E. coli bacteraemias, please see the E. coli bacteraemia section.
VTEC are a group of bacteria which cause illness in humans. The most important VTEC strain to cause illness in the UK is E. coli O157. Symptoms can range from mild gastroentiris to severe bloody diarrhoea, mostly without fever, through to two serious conditions known as haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) and thrombotic thrombocytopaenic purpura (TTP) that affect the blood, kidneys and in severe cases the central nervous system. VTEC are relatively rare as the cause of infectious gastroenteritis in England and Wales; however the disease can be fatal, particularly in infants, young children and the elderly.
Transmission occurs through consumption of food or water that has become contaminated by faeces from infected animals, from direct or indirect contact with animals that carry VTEC, or from exposure to an environment contaminated with animals faeces, such as farms and similar premises with animals which are open to the public - see leaflet Avoiding infections on farm visits. Infection is readily spread between family contacts, particularly those who may be caring for infected children, and in settings such as children’s day nurseries.
The Health Protection Agency is involved with confirming cases of VTEC infection, as well as monitoring cases, identifying outbreaks and providing advice for the control of VTEC infections.
*VTEC refers to both Vero cytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli and Verotoxigenic Escherichia coli - they are the same. Shiga-toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) are synonymous with VTEC. Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) are a subgroup of these.