Research – Switzerland – Do changes in STEC diagnostics mislead interpretation of disease surveillance data in Switzerland? Time trends in positivity, 2007 to 2016


Infections caused by Shiga toxin (Stx)-producing  (STEC) are generally mild and self-limiting or even asymptomatic. However, particularly in children and elderly people, STEC infections can lead to severe gastroenteritis with haemorrhagic diarrhoea and life-threatening conditions, e.g. haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) [1,2].

STEC transmission can occur through the consumption of contaminated food and drinks, or by direct contact with infected individuals or animals shedding the bacterium* [1,35]. STEC infections are endemic in Europe, including Switzerland [6,7]. Cases occur sporadically or in outbreaks; a large outbreak attributed to contaminated sprouts occurred in Germany in 2011 [8]. Smaller outbreaks have also been reported, e.g. there was an outbreak in Italy in 2013 and in Romania in 2016, both were suspected to be caused by contaminated dairy products [9,10]. Considering 22 years of population-based data up to 2012, Majowicz et al. estimated in 2014 that STEC leads to an estimated 2.8 million illness cases per year, including 3,800 cases of HUS, globally [11].

The National Notification System for Infectious Diseases (NNSID) of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) has been receiving all notifications of laboratory-confirmed STEC infections since 1999. Case numbers were generally constant until 2010, with only a few laboratories reporting STEC cases in Switzerland. An increase in cases was observed in 2011 following the outbreak in Germany, before returning to expected yearly fluctuations, and then markedly increasing since 2015 [12]. Given that this increase was observed around the same time as the introduction of syndromic multiplex PCR panels for stool analyses in standard laboratory practice in Switzerland [12], it was hypothesised that these panels were the cause of the increase in notified STEC cases. Traditionally, routine testing of stool samples for bacterial pathogens involved only  spp.,  spp. and  spp. using culture-based techniques. With syndromic multiplex PCR panels, stool samples can be tested for up to 22 pathogens, including STEC, in one single run [12,13].

Prior to the gradual introduction of multiplex PCR to the routine diagnostics between 2014 and 2015, STEC was only specifically tested for in Switzerland upon physician request, and this rarely happened. Current testing practice includes the use of small syndromic enteric bacterial panels for testing in patients without a travel history or a larger gastrointestinal panel if travel history is reported on the test order form [7].

A qualitative assessment found that Swiss laboratory experts uniformly agreed that the increase in STEC case numbers was due to the introduction and increasing use of multiplex PCR panels [7]. We set out to conduct a quantitative investigation as to whether an increase in the STEC testing rate associated with the use of the panels is what led to the increased notification of cases.

Our study assesses the development of the STEC positivity in the Swiss population between 2007 and 2016 using routine laboratory data, and gives insight into the epidemiology and notification numbers of STEC infections in Switzerland.

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