E. coli bacteria cause six to eight million urinary tract infections every year, mostly in women. And more and more of those bugs are shrugging off the antibiotics that we use to treat them.
“We don’t understand where people are picking up these antibiotic-resistant strains,” says Lance Price, professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University School of Public Health. “But if we’re serious about tackling this problem, then we need to investigate food as a possible source.”
first link between chicken and UTIs
More than a decade ago, researchers investigating a cluster of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in California discovered that they were linked to a unique drug-resistant strain of E. coli that was also found in raw chicken sold there. (1) “That started the idea that maybe poultry products were a source of exposure to the E. coli that caused those urinary tract infections,” says Price.
Some researchers have dubbed the infections FUTIs (FOO-tees), for “foodborne urinary tract infections.”
In 2012 Price and his co-workers collected samples of raw turkey, chicken, and pork from all nine major grocery chains in Flagstaff, Arizona. They also obtained blood and urine samples from UTI patients in the city’s only hospital. (2)
Then they compared the genetic fingerprints of the E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae (another bug that can cause UTIs) that were in the food with the fingerprints of the E. coli and Klebsiella that were in the patients.
There were matches for both bacteria.
“It’s very compelling evidence that E. coli are bleeding over from the food supply and causing UTIs,” says Price. “And the fact that we were able to find pairs of Klebsiella strains that were so closely related in food and in sick patients suggests that food is also probably an important source of Klebsiella-caused UTIs.”
What’s probably happening, says Price, is that people are contaminating their kitchens with bacteria from raw poultry and meat. “Then they inadvertently get those bacteria in their mouths, and the bacteria colonize the gut and then eventually make their way out of the gut and over to the urinary tract.”
And those bacteria are increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
“This summer I cared for two patients with diabetes and urinary tract infections caused by a highly resistant strain of E. coli,” Barbara Murray, then-president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, told a U.S. House of Representatives committee in 2014. “Both had to be admitted to the hospital for intravenous therapy because their infections were resistant to all oral antibiotics. Probably every woman by the age of 60 has had at least one UTI, and there is now no reliable oral antibiotic for complicated UTIs.”
How can you protect yourself?
- Keep a separate cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and seafood, and wash your hands and all surfaces thoroughly after handling them.
- Whenever possible, choose meat and poultry that was raised without antibiotics.
Sources: (1) Clin. Infect. Dis. 40: 251, 2005; (2) Clin. Infect. Dis. 61: 892, 2015.
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