THE DOLAN SISTERS—MARY 4, AND Aundrea, 2—wanted to go to the Jack in the Box from the moment they saw the fast-food restaurant going up in their Seattle neighborhood last fall. Finally they got their chance. On Jan. 3 their father, Joseph, 30, took them for cheeseburgers, fries and milk. That should have been the sum of it, but six days later, Mary was rushed to Children’s Hospital with severe cramps and bloody diarrhea. The next day, Aundrea came down with the same symptoms. The girls had both been infected by contaminated hamburger meat.
They were not alone. In the past month more than 350 people in the Far West—many of them children—have become seriously ill after eating meat contaminated with a deadly bacterium known as E. coli 0157:H7. So far two children—Michael Note of Tacoma, Wash., and Celina Shribbs of Seattle, both 2 years old—have died. E. coli has killed at least 16 people nationwide since it was first identified 10 years ago. But thousands of other people may not have known they were infected. “Many people think they have the flu,” says Jeremy Rifkin, head of the Beyond Beef Coalition, an organization that has been critical of federal meat-inspection standards. “We call it the hamburger disease.”
Most of the recent E. coli cases have been linked to burgers served by Western outlets of the Jack in the Box food chain, which operates in 13 slates. While health officials are still investigating the source of the tainted meal, Jack in the Box quickly look responsibility for serving bad burgers. The company replaced 28,000 pounds of potentially contaminated meat in Washington, Idaho and southern Nevada and agreed to increase both the cooking time and temperature of hamburgers to eliminate possible contamination (see box page 50) in the future. “This is a horrible event,” the food chain’s chairman, Jack Goodall, wrote in a full-page advertisement in Seattle newspapers. Still, many parents weren’t satisfied. “My greatest fear is that this will be swept under the rug,” says Sheri Wenzel of Seattle, whose 3-year-old son, Caleb, was one of the first to be stricken. “I worry that soon it will be back to business as usual.”
Not all the infections could be traced to Jack in the Box. “We hadn’t eaten there, so it didn’t enter our minds she might have the same illness,” says Celina Shribbs’s father, Keith, 34, a chef. At first, he says, he and his wife, Shanda, 35, thought Celina had the flu. After the toddler suffered bloody diarrhea, they took her to Seattle Children’s Hospital for a checkup. A doctor there correctly diagnosed the problem, Shribbs says, but thought she was well enough to be treated as an outpatient.
Two days later, while en route to the hospital for further tests, Celina took a sudden turn for the worse. “We got about halfway there, and she spit up a little bit,” says Shribbs. “I was looking in the rear-view mirror, and I could see her in the child seat. She started going through convulsions; her eyes were fixed. I’ve never been so helpless.” Celina had suffered a severe seizure and died of heart failure before her father could reach the hospital. How she became infected is still unknown. “I’m very angry, not vengeful, because there’s no one to be vengeful at,” her father says. “It’s not like someone pointed a gun at her and shot her. It was an accident.”
But it was no accident, doctors say, that many of those affected wore children, since their immune systems are not as fully developed as those of adults. Indeed, Aundrea Dolan was violently ill for a week, and her sister, Mary, developed complications that nearly proved fatal. On Jan. 14 she went into convulsions and was temporarily paralyzed on her left side. With her kidneys failing, she had to begin dialysis the next day. But Mary, however, proved to have a powerful will to live and responded quickly lo treatment. “Mary is a very active child,” says her father. “She wanted to get out. She had about 20 different tubes in her, but she was like a boxer who just wouldn’t quit. She would collapse and get right up.”
Now both girls are home, eager to do all the things little girls like to do. When Dolan drove Aundrea to the hospital recently for a blood test, they passed their neighborhood Jack in the Box, and she asked excitedly if they could stop. “I had to tell her that I don’t think we’ll eat there anymore,” Dolan says. “She doesn’t understand the cause, and she doesn’t have qualms about the place. But I can’t picture ever going there again.”
CLAY HATHORN in Seattle