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Volume 23, Number 12—December 2017

Wildlife as Source of Human Escherichia coli O157 Infection

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To the Editor: The article by Probert et al. (1) highlighted that wild animals (in this case, deer) can act as a reservoir of Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O157 infection. Our previous research (2) broadens this to include wild animals as STEC O157 carriers. In our study, an outbreak of STEC O157 infection in eastern England was epidemiologically linked to visiting a wildlife park. Unlike in petting zoos, the visitors had no direct contact with the animals. Transmission of infection was attributed to contact with the feces of wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in a play area; the rabbits had been in contact with STEC O157–positive cattle in an adjacent field (3). To prove this hypothesis, we identified rabbit populations living on farms with STEC O157–positive cattle. We trapped the rabbits humanely in cages, collected their feces during their confinement before release, and tested the feces for STEC O157 by culture and PCR. Of 97 samples collected in the summer, 8 (8.2%) were positive by culture; these samples came from 4 of 6 farms in the study. By PCR analysis, 20 of 97 (20.6%) samples were positive. None was positive during the winter, when cattle were housed indoors, suggesting a link between STEC O157 positivity in cattle and rabbits. In conclusion, when outbreaks of this serious human infection are linked to the rural environment, it is necessary to take wildlife into consideration, both as a reservoir of transmission and as carriers. Equally, persons should not underestimate the necessity of good hand hygiene if they have contact with wild animal feces.


Brian CrookComments to Author  and Helena Senior

Author affiliations: Health and Safety Laboratory, Health and Safety Executive, Buxton, United Kingdom



  1. Probert  WS, Miller  GM, Ledin  KE. Contaminated stream water as source for Escherichia coli O157 illness in children. Emerg Infect Dis. 2017;23:12168. DOIPubMed
  2. Scaife  HR, Cowan  D, Finney  J, Kinghorn-Perry  SF, Crook  B. Wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) as potential carriers of verocytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli. Vet Rec. 2006;159:1758. DOIPubMed
  3. Bailey  JR, Warner  L, Pritchard  GC, Williamson  S, Carson  T, Willshaw  G, et al. Wild rabbits—a novel vector for Vero cytotoxigenic Escherichia coli (VTEC) O157. Commun Dis Public Health. 2002;5:745.PubMed


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DOI: 10.3201/eid2312.171210

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Table of Contents – Volume 23, Number 12—December 2017


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Brian Crook, Health and Safety Laboratory–Microbiology Team, Harpur Hill, Buxton SK17 9JN, UK

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Page created: November 16, 2017
Page updated: November 16, 2017
Page reviewed: November 16, 2017
The conclusions, findings, and opinions expressed by authors contributing to this journal do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors' affiliated institutions. Use of trade names is for identification only and does not imply endorsement by any of the groups named above.