Shiga-toxin E. coli infections remain a public health concern because of the severity of the gastrointestinal illness and associated complications. Transmission pathways are typically elucidated from outbreaks, with foodborne transmission the primary source. However, most STEC cases are sporadic. This systematic review aimed to identify the most common pathways for sporadic STEC transmission and quantify their importance.
We systematically reviewed epidemiological studies of sporadic (non-outbreak) STEC cases that investigated potential risk factors. Searches were run in Medline, EMBASE, and Scopus. Included studies needed to confirm STEC infection and investigate ≥20 cases.
31 studies were included, of which 25 were case-control or case-case studies. 62.5% found consumption of undercooked/raw meat associated with STEC infection while 70.4% found contact with animals or their environment a risk factor. Random-effects meta-analysis provided pooled odds ratios and population attributable fraction (PAF). The PAF was 19% for undercooked/raw meat, followed by person to person transmission at 15%. Contact with animals and visiting farm environments had PAFs of 14% and 12% respectively.
Out of potential sources for STEC exposure, undercooked meat and contact with animals and their environment were the most frequently found transmission routes. Decreasing the chances of acquiring the bacteria by these methods would additionally cut down on the other major transmission route, person-to-person spread.