NEWARK, N.J. (AP) An outbreak of E. coli bacteria has sickened at least 11 people in New Jersey over the past two weeks, officials said.
``This is a significant outbreak of a serious disease, and a significant amount of people are ill,'' Middlesex County Director of Health David Papi told The Star-Ledger.
Investigators are still trying to figure out how and where the victims became infected, the newspaper reported in Sunday's editions.
The youngest patient is 1 and the oldest is 23. Two of the 11 had developed a serious condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome that can permanently damage the kidneys.
Nine of the 11 ate at a Taco Bell restaurant in South Plainfield that was voluntarily closed on Thursday because of the investigation, but Papi said inspectors did not find any significant health code violations there last week. Tests are being performed on the restaurant's 21 employees to see if any are infected.
A spokesman for Taco Bell Corp., Rob Poetsch, said in a statement that the restaurant and its food has been tested by the Middlesex County Health Department and given a clean bill of health.
``We have taken every precaution, including temporarily closing the restaurant until the investigation is completed, as nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our customers and employees,'' Poetsch said.
E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless intestinal bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the strain of E. coli that caused the New Jersey infections is often found in the intestines of healthy goats, sheep and cattle, and most infections are associated with undercooked meat.
It can be passed from person to person if people don't take steps such as thoroughly washing their hands.
E. coli may also be found in sprouts or green leafy vegetables such as spinach. Earlier this year, three people died and more than 200 were sickened by a strain of E. coli that was traced to packaged spinach grown in California.