E. coli O157

Notorious STEC/VTEC producing strain of E coli. STEC is shigella toxigenic E coli, VTEC is verocytotoxin toxigenic E coli (same thing).

Cause of potentially fatal Haemolytic uraemic syndrome. But other strains also recognised.

1996 Lanarkshire outbreak, traced back to meat pies from John Barr’s butcher’s in Wishaw.  21 deaths, 512 cases of HUS, esp Wishaw Parish Church Hall luncheon and a local pub birthday party. At the time it was the most deadly food related disease outbreak in world history.  As of 2023 it is still the 6th most deadly food related outbreak in history, and still the worst death toll from O157.

A sad claim to fame for the town.  John Barr was eventually fined £2500.

Emerged in late 80s, rates in Scotland have always been highest in UK until Northern Ireland outbreak with 140 cases in 2012. Odd because England has a lot more cows…

Scotland is said to have 2nd highest incidence globally, although not great data from many places, high regional variability, under-reporting…  Canada and Iran worse?

At the same time as the Lanarkshire outbreak, there was an outbreak in Sakai city, Japan – 12 000 cases of infection, mostly primary school kids.  121 developed HUS, 3 died.  Traced to white radish sprouts.

Since then, another major outbreak in 2011, Northern Germany. O104 strain however, enteroaggregative plus toxin. 800 cases HUS (90% adults), 53 deaths.  Traced to organic fenugreek sprouts, although Spanish cucumbers blamed initially, exports dropped £120 million per week until consumer confidence returned.

Ratio of unreported human VTEC O157 infection to reports to national surveillance is estimated at 7.4 to 1.


E coli O157 is now commonly found in cattle, but causes no clinical effect, therefore no incentive for farmers to control. Supershedders are recognized, with one such cow able to contaminate a huge proportion of other animals’ hides.   Current FSA research project underway.  A vaccine has been developed.

Sheep have also been found to carry it…  Likely cause of outbreaks related to “Tough Mudder” events.


Lots of acronyms!

  • EHEC = Enterohaemorrhagic E coli
  • O157:H7 = serotype
  • STEC = Shiga toxin producing E coli, same as VTEC (verocytotoxin)
  • STX1/2 genes (same as VTX) code for this toxin.
  • D+/- = Diarrhoeal illness associated (or not)
  • HUS – Haemolytic uraemic syndrome

More than 400 O:H serotypes – 6 account for most HUS.

Other genes are also relevant for virulence eg Intimin (an adherence factor, coded for by eae gene).


  • Stool culture – should be collected and processed urgently.  State if bloody diarrhoea present and/or suspicion of STEC infection. Routinely tested for the presence of E. coli O157 at local laboratory, which takes 24-48 hours from sample receipt, but will miss non-O157 types. If positive, isolates are referred to SERL for confirmation of identity and typing.
  • PCR stool testing – if stool culture negative, and clearly bloody (or clinical info suggests likely STEC), then Scottish (SNERL) guidance is to send stool for PCR at the Scottish E. coli O157/ STEC Reference Laboratory (SERL), which detects both E. coli O157 and non-O157 STEC.
  • Serum serology – is used for suspected cases where culture/PCR negative.
  • Rectal swabs – may be submitted directly to SERL from cases of HUS who are unable to produce a stool sample.

Do not delay appropriate clinical and public health management while awaiting reference laboratory results.

Regarding laboratory processes:

  • Rapid referral of samples from diagnostic laboratories to SERL is important to improve the probability of culture confirmation.
  • Positive PCR results will be telephoned immediately to the referring diagnostic laboratory and culture results will follow.
  • The local diagnostic laboratory will inform the clinical team and the local public health team of positive PCR and culture results.
  • PCR (stool) may become available to local diagnostic laboratory, removing need for samples to be referred to SERL . However, if a patient presenting with HUS or acute bloody diarrhoea tests negative by local PCR and is causing clinical concern, please discuss referral of stools for further testing with SERL.