I always find it interesting how we can be oblivious to certain things as we go about our lives, and then upon discovering something new, we wonder how we ever lived so long not knowing about it.
This was the case for me over the summer. I had a family member fall suddenly ill, and when it became apparent that medical intervention was necessary, he was whisked away to the hospital. Test results soon confirmed that he had contracted Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.
My family consists of several self-proclaimed researchers — we like to know what’s happening and why. So off we scurried to the Internet, to find out just what Shiga toxin-producing E. coli was, how he got it, and what was going to happen with his medical care and health.
The situation turned frightening almost immediately. Shiga toxin-producing E. coli — otherwise known as STEC, an acronym I’m certain I’ve seen before — is dangerous. For people who experience complications with STEC, it can lead to renal failure, and death. Modern medicine can only do so much to combat its effects on the human body.
As such, we were forced to wait and watch from the sidelines as his body struggled to fight the toxins. One by one, he systematically hit all the benchmarks of declining health. The big one was HUS — hemolytic uremic syndrome — otherwise known as kidney failure, a complication that affects only 5-10 percent of people who contract STEC. He was one of the unlucky few.
For my family, the final outcome was victorious. After several rounds of dialysis, my relative slowly regained kidney function, his body healed itself, and he returned home to spend his entire summer recovering. From what I understand, the doctors believe he even dodged permanent kidney damage, meaning it’s likely he’ll make a full recovery and not experience trouble down the road.
For other families, the outcome is loss. And at one point or another, as he lie in his hospital bed looking dangerously pale and lifeless day after day, I believe we all faced the grim realization that it might be us this time — losing a loved one to an illness most, if not all of us knew little about. An acronym we’d seen thrown around on the Internet before, or briefly noticed on a chart at the doctor’s office, but never really looked into or even connected with E. coli.
Honestly, how could I know about E. coli, but not Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, if it’s the one making people fall ill in all those E. coli outbreaks covered in the media?
My lack of knowledge is a prime example of what makes the news so important in our lives, the sharing of information for the betterment of all. And in that same vein of thought, I thought I’d share a recent story I read, which was my motivation for writing this column.
I received an email the other day about a team of scientists who were awarded by USDA for their research work, coincidentally on the very illness that afflicted my family this summer. Led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, this team included researchers from Kansas State University and 16 other institutions across the nation, all working collaboratively to reduce the risks of contracting STEC from beef in our food supply.
The Coordinated Agricultural Program on E. coli, as the team is titled, has made significant findings on detecting and methods of reducing E. coli. When they conclude the project in 2018, they will have worked for seven years on one pathogen, just to make us all a little safer.
I marvel at this kind of dedication — seven years, simply doing their work every day, all under the radar. In today’s mass media climate, with the headlines so fixated on Trump, North Korea and Hollywood, it makes me wonder, if I didn’t work in the agricultural news industry, would I have even heard about this research, or the prestigious award this group received for their efforts? Maybe not.
That’s why I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share their accomplishments with others who may not have heard yet either. A moment to say, “Hey, these people, they did this for you!” I think we all need that reminder now and again, especially when research efforts such as this can, and do, go unnoticed and underappreciated. You want answers to problems, vaccines for diseases? These are the people giving it to you, putting in decades of work to solve one issue at a time. (And training the next generation of brilliant scientists, too.)
We don’t have to limit ourselves to thanking our fellow citizens in uniform, or those working the fields and tending the livestock. There’s room to thank a scientist, too.
To read more about their research and Partnership Award from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, scoot over to UNL’s website — https://ianrnews.unl.edu/husker-led-e-coli-research-wins-usda-award.
And congratulations to the STEC CAP team for a well-deserved accolade.