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Home News centre National Press Releases 2009 Press Releases ›  Health Protection Agency commissions independent investigation into E. coli outbreak and apologises for delays

Health Protection Agency commissions independent investigation into E. coli outbreak and apologises for delays

16 September 2009

The Health Protection Agency's Chief Executive Justin McCracken yesterday phoned parents of those children most seriously affected by the E. coli outbreak at Godstone Farm in Surrey to apologise for delays within HPA and to announce an independent investigation.

Initially the HPA said that the first case had come to light on 27 August, but following an immediate investigation into the incident instigated by the CEO, Mr McCracken received confirmation late on Monday that the Agency had received a report of two cases in the previous week.

Mr McCracken said: "If this information had been taken into account on 27 August, then the advice given and the steps taken on 3 September would have been introduced earlier and the farm might have been closed earlier. 

"I wanted to speak personally to the parents of those children who are most seriously ill in hospital to explain what has happened and, however inadequate under the circumstances, to apologise. The position they find themselves in is unbearable and it is of course worse that what has happened might have been avoidable."

Mr McCracken continued: "I have decided to set up an externally led investigation into the outbreak, the factors which contributed to it and its handling.  This will be led by George Griffin, Professor of Infectious Diseases and Medicine at St. George's, University of London and Chair of the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens.

"It is important that we have a full understanding of this outbreak because of the large number of people who appear to have been affected and the wide range of animals involved so that we can all learn the lessons from this serious outbreak.

"And I am determined that this organisation makes whatever changes are necessary in response to the findings of the investigation."


Notes to Editors:

  • Escherichia coli (commonly referred to as E. coli) is a species of bacteria commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals. There are many different types of E. coli, and while some live in the intestine quite harmlessly, others may cause a variety of diseases. The bacterium is found in faeces and can survive in the environment.
  • E.coli O157 is a type of E. coli which can infect humans when they consume food or water that has become contaminated by faeces from infected animals.
  • All animals naturally carry a range of micro-organisms, some of which - like E. coli O157 - can be passed on to humans and may cause ill health. As such organisms may be contracted on farms, good general cleanliness around farms, separating eating and contact areas, adequate handwashing facilities, information for staff and visitors and proper supervision of animal contact and handwashing are all essential.
  • Current veterinary and medical opinion is that it should be assumed all ruminant animals - cattle, sheep, goats and deer - carry E. coli O157 and it is found in a range of other animals and birds including geese and seagulls.
  • It's especially important that farms do everything they can to control the risks to visitors because very low numbers of E. coli O157 can cause infection. E. coli O157 can also persist for long periods outside the animal - up to 150 days in soil and 90 days in cattle faeces. As a result, other animals on the farm, including pets, can easily acquire the bacterium
  • E. coli O157 bacteria in humans usually cause diarrhoea which settles within seven days without treatment. The diarrhoea may contain blood. Occasionally, serious kidney and blood complications can occur.  To prevent the spread of the bacteria, it is important to always wash your hands with soap after going to the toilet and before and after handling food.
  • Hand washing in young children should be supervised, especially after handling animals or their surroundings.

More information:

For further information contact the HPA Press Office:
0207 759 2834
0207 759 2824
0207 759 2856

Last reviewed: 23 September 2009