JOURNAL ARTICLE
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Outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 hemorrhagic colitis and hemolytic uremic syndrome: effect on use of a pediatric emergency department.

STUDY OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the effect of an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 colitis, and media coverage of the outbreak, on use of an emergency department.

DESIGN: Review of pediatric ED use and charges for gastrointestinal illness during the epidemic and during a control period.

SETTING: Pediatric ED in Seattle, Washington.

PARTICIPANTS: All children seen in the ED with a gastrointestinal illness during the epidemic period (January and February 1993) and during a control period (January and February 1992).

RESULTS: During the epidemic, 31 patients with E coli O157:H7 infection had 45 visits to the ED. The number of visits for gastrointestinal illness not caused by E coli O157:H7 was 103% higher in the epidemic period than in the control period (653 in 1992, 1,327 in 1993). The number of visits was closely associated with the number of newspaper stories about E coli O157:H7 illness (correlation coefficient, .88; P = .002). The increased number of evaluations for gastrointestinal illness not caused by E coli O157:H7 infection during the epidemic period was associated with an additional $101,193 in charges per month compared with the control period. There were no important differences in the evaluation of gastrointestinal illness between 1992 and 1993 except for an increase in the proportion of patients with stool cultures (13.1% versus 26.4%, P < .001).

CONCLUSION: For every visit by a patient with E coli O157:H7 infection, there were 15 additional visits (above the baseline from the control period) by patients with other gastrointestinal illness. The true cost of this epidemic included not only the evaluation of patients with disease but also the evaluation of those who presented because they were worried they had the disease. The intensity of media coverage of a disaster may correlate with the number of visits to the ED, and understanding of this fact may help in disaster planning.

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