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Hamburger Disease (Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome)

Mainly from contaminated food


Updated June 30, 2009

How food poisoning happens

How food poisoning happens

Photo © A.D.A.M.
In September 2006, fresh spinach contaminated with bacteria was sold in 19 states in the United States. The spinach caused 102 people to become ill. Sixteen of those people developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and one person died.

In March 2003, a lawsuit was filed against the Kettleman City, California branch of In-N-Out Burger. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a girl who developed HUS after eating at the restaurant and is now at risk for developing kidney damage.

In April 2000, seven people died and more than 2,000 became ill after drinking contaminated water in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada. In July 2000, 40 people became ill after eating at a Milwaukee Sizzler restaurant; one child died.

HUS mainly from bacteria

The more common type of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), as in the cases above, occurs after a person has been infected with a bacteria (E. coli O157:H7) from contaminated food or water. Basically, the bacteria poison the person. Another type of HUS can occur in response to other germs or certain medicines, and rarely from no known reason.

HUS rare but widespread

Hemolytic uremic syndrome is a condition that results in the destruction of clotting cells (thrombocytopenia) and red blood cells (hemolytic anemia), and causes the kidneys to shut down (renal failure) due to damage in the small blood vessels and tubules in the kidneys. It usually affects children between the ages of 1 to 10 years, but may also occur in adults. HUS affects 2 to 4 people per 100,000 and occurs all over the world.


HUS occurs after stomach flu (gastroenteritis) and includes vomiting, fever, and watery diarrhea that is often bloody. Three to 10 days later, HUS begins with symptoms such as:
  • Sudden paleness (pallor) and irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Decreased urination, and the urine may be bloody
  • Little purple bruises on the skin
  • Increased blood pressure


There is no particular drug which can cure HUS. Medical care is provided in the hospital treatment for kidney failure including dialysis, blood transfusions to return the blood to normal, high blood pressure medicine, and a special diet. Intravenous immunoglobulin G (IgG) may be given. It is not clear whether antibiotics can help treat the disease. Unfortunately, 4% to 5% of patients with HUS will not survive, and many more will develop long-term health problems.

Researchers at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada, are working on developing a treatment for HUS. Their work is looking at a special type of drug that would inactivate the poison produced by the E. coli bacteria, and thus stop the disease from getting worse.

Protect yourself and your children

  • Cook all ground beef and poultry thoroughly. Send restaurant food back to the kitchen if it's not cooked well.
  • Don't drink unpasteurized juices or milk. Juices at a roadside stand would not usually be pasteurized.
  • Refrigerate ground beef and perishable food immediately after shopping.
  • Wash your hands and food utensils with hot, soapy water after handling meat and poultry.


"Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome." National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Dec 2005. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 2 Sep 2007.

Sims, Judith. "Hemolytic-uremic syndrome." Health AtoZ. 14 Aug 2006. HealthAtoZ.com. 2 Sep 2007.

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