Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are one of the most common infections in women, affecting one US woman in five during her lifetime.
Although UTIs are not typically considered 'outbreak' diseases, it is likely that a cluster of UTIs resulting from the same drug-resistant strain of the bacterium E. coli came from a single animal source, such as meat or milk, claim the researchers.
A rise in global food production, processing, distribution and preparation has led to growing pressure on the food chain to minimise outbreaks of food borne diseases.
In industrialised countries, the percentage of people suffering from foodborne diseases each year has been reported to be up to 30 per cent. And in the US, for example, around 76 million cases of foodborne diseases, resulting in 325,000 hospitalisations and 5,000 deaths, are estimated to occur each year.
Sixty-one deaths and 73,000 illnesses - such as bloody diarrhoea and hemorrhagic colitis - are blamed on eating foods contaminated with E. coli each year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 1996, an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Japan affected over 6,300 school children and resulted in two deaths. The UN-backed World Health Organisation claims this is the largest outbreak ever recorded for this pathogen.
But now scientists in the US confirm that UTIs are also linked to E. coli strains.
They report in the 15 January issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases that between October 1999 and January 2000, a single strain of E. coli was discovered to be responsible for drug-resistant UTIs in university communities in California, Minnesota, and Michigan.
Researchers studied nearly 500 specimens of E. coli obtained from non-human sources such as cows, turkeys, dogs, sheep, and water. They found that one-quarter of the specimens were microbiologically indistinguishable from comparable human strains of E. coli.
A more refined test showed that, of the drug-resistant specimens, one from a cow had a 94 per cent similarity to a UTI-causing human strain of E. coli. The researchers concluded that the cause of the outbreak was probably foodborne.
Sensible food preparation can help avert a host of health problems, such as diarrhoea, cramping and fever; apparently, UTIs should now be added to the list. "Urinary tract infection … has never been thought of as being food-related," said lead author Lee W. Riley, at the University of California-Berkeley.
But his findings will fuel growing evidence that suggests the North American cranberry (vaccinium macrocarpon) can help combat UTIs by reducing the adhesion of certain E.coli bacteria to the urinary tract walls.
In a small study, researchers from the University of Washington found recently that drinking eight ounces of cranberry juice works better than four in combating E.coli bacteria that cause most urinary tract infections (UTI).
So convincing is the evidence, in April 2004 the French food authority AFSSA approved a health claim for cranberry juice and powder and its effect on urinary tract health, the world's first health claim for the fruit.
AFSSA (Agence Francaise de securite sanitaire des aliments) now permits the claim that the North American cranberry can 'help reduce the adhesion of certain E.coli bacteria to the urinary tract walls'.
Food, drink and dietary supplement manufacturers can now use the claim to highlight the health benefits of products containing this cranberry species to consumers.
Cranberries are naturally rich in phenols and antidioxidant compounds proanthocyanidins, which help to prevent disease-causing organisms from causing infection.