SUPERBUGS: Chicken Out of Urinary Tract Infections
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From Michael Greger, M.D.  

Urinary Tract Infections are the most common infectious disease in women, affecting millions every year in the United States. And they are getting harder and harder to treat as antibiotic resistance among the chief pathogen, E. coli, becomes more and more common.

When people think of E. coli infection, they typically think of the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli 0157:H7 infection, which starts as hemorrhagic colitis (profuse bloody diarrhea) and can then progress to kidney failure, seizures, coma and death. While E. coli 0157:H7 remains the leading cause of acute kidney failure of our children in this country,[1] only about 50,000 people get infected every year and only about 50 die. But literally millions of people get what's called "extraintestinal" E. coli infections--urinary tract infections (UTIs) which can invade the bloodstream and cause an estimated 36,000 deaths annually in the United States. That's over 500 times as many deaths as E. coli 0157:H7. We know where E. coli 0157:H7 comes from--fecal contamination from the meat, dairy and egg industries[2]--but where do these other E. coli come from?

Medical researchers at the University of Minnesota published a clue to the mystery this April in the Journal of Infectious Disease. Taking over a thousand food samples from multiple retail markets, they were not surprised to find evidence of fecal contamination in 69% of the pork and beef and 92% of the poultry samples as evidenced by E. coli contamination. We know meat products are crawling with intestinal bugs. In fact, animal manure has been found to be the source of more than 100 pathogens, including bacteria, parasites and viruses that could be transmitted from animals to humans.[3]

More surprising was that ">80% of their E. coli isolates from beef, pork, and poultry exhibited resistance to >=1 antimicrobial agent, and >50% of isolates from poultry were resistant to >5 drugs!"[4] One rarely finds exclamation points in the medical literature.

But what was most surprising was that, for example, half of the poultry samples were contaminated with the extraintestinal E. coli bacteria. It seems that the UTI-type E. coli are food-borne pathogens as well, "found in many retail foods," the researchers write, "particularly poultry but also beef or pork...."

The researchers conclude: "The highest prevalences and densities of resistant E. coli and ExPEC [Extraintestinal Pathogenic E. Coli] were found in meat products. This is consistent with contamination of animal carcasses with the host's fecal flora during slaughter and processing and with use of antimicrobial agents in food-animal production." The researchers go so far as to say that the extraintestinal pathogenic E. coli "may rival (or exceed) E. coli O157:H7 as a foodborne pathogen."[5] Science News comments on a 2005 California study which found the same thing:[6] "According to new research, this wave of multidrug-resistant UTIs may have a surprising source: eating meat."[7]

The scientists suspect by eating chicken and other meat, women infect their lower intestinal tract with these antibiotic-resistant bacteria which can then creep up into their urethra. Commonsense hygiene measures to prevent UTI's have always included wiping from front to back after bowel movements and urinating after intercourse to flush any infiltrators out. Now perhaps we can add a third measure: avoiding meat.


[1] NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Fact Sheet. "Foodborne Diseases." February 2005.

[2] Schoenl JL and MP Doyle. "Variable colonization of chickens perorally inoculated with Escherichia coli O157:H7 and subsequent contamination of eggs." Applied Environmental Microbiology 60(1994): 2958-62.

[3] Commission of European Communities. Communicable Diseases Resulting from Storage, Handling, Transport and Landspreading of Manures. Batiment Jean Monnet, Luxembourg (1982):139-47.

[4] Jones TF and W Schaffner. "Perspectives on the Persistent Scourge of Foodborne Disease." 205(2005):1029-31

[5] Johnson JR, et al. "Antimicrobial-Resistant and Extraintestinal Pathogenic Escherichia coli in Retail Foods." Journal of Infectious Diseases 205(2005):1040-9.

[6] Ramchandani M, et al. "Possible Animal Origin of Human-Associated, Multidrug-Resistant, Uropathogenic Escherichia coli." Clinical Infectious Diseases 40(2005):251-7.

[7] Brownlee C. "Beef About UTIs." Science News 15 January 2005.

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