Background and Aims Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (ETEC) is the most common bacterial pathogen isolated from travelers suffering of diarrhea. Exposure to heat-labile toxin (LT) produces a high rate of seroconversion. However, the role of LT-producing ETEC (LT-ETEC) as a cause of diarrhea is controversial. We conducted a cohort study in US students traveling to Mexico to assess the ETEC-LT seroconversion rate after natural exposure.
Methods Participants provided a serum sample on arrival and departure and a stool sample when ill. ETEC-LT immunoglobulin G antibodies were measured by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, and LT-ETEC were detected by means of polymerase chain reaction done on fecal DNA.
Results A total of 422 participants with a mean age of 34.5 years were followed a mean of 19.9 days; 304 were females (72.0%), and 319 (75.6%) traveled during the summer months. In total, 177 individuals (41.9%) developed travelers’ diarrhea and 33.9% had LT-ETEC identified in their stools. Among individuals having an LT-ETEC strain, 74% seroconverted compared to 11% of those not having diarrhea (p < 0.0001). When analyzed with a logistic regression model, the odds of seroconversion were significantly reduced in participants not having LT-ETEC in their stool (odds ratio = 0.1, p < 0.0001) after adjusting for season, length of stay, age, gender, race, and ethnicity.
Conclusion In US young adults traveling to Mexico, ETEC-LT seroconversion reliably identifies individuals naturally exposed to ETEC and correlates with symptomatic illness, length and season of travel.