PUBLIC health bosses did not inform the public about a deadly strain of E.coli in Dorset for 140 days - despite it already infecting 21 people, a special investigation has revealed.

The first outbreak of its kind in England, E.coli VTEC 055 struck down a total of 31 people in the county between July 2014 and November 2015. Eleven children and two adults were left fighting for their lives as a result of suffering Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a rare complication of the infection which affects the blood, kidneys and, in the most severe cases, the central nervous system.

Little Freddy Osborne was the first victim and at just 21 months old, was in a medically induced coma for five days after suffering kidney failure and seizures due to swelling on the brain. One of these lasted four hours and left him blind for 10 days.

Three years on, some of the victims, including Isaac Mortlock, five, have been left with life-long health complications. The six-year-old suffers from regular fits and will need a kidney transplant.

Today the Daily Echo can publish the details of Public Health England’s 159-page outbreak report into the rare outbreak released only after a Freedom of Information request.

It states there was ‘no public health protection imperative to go public with warnings' any earlier - even though the report concedes it is likely more cases went under the radar.

PHE has criticised the Echo for 'sensationalist' reporting and in an apparent criticism of the families, PHE say they 'unfortunately leaked' details of the outbreak to the media.

It comes as MP Chris Chope calls for Public Health England to be transparent about future outbreaks and will ask the Government for all reports into the E.Coli 055 to be in the public domain as well as question Parliament about what action PHE is taking to prevent a further outbreak.

The three-part report which was completed in April last year details the exhaustive efforts of a number of agencies carrying out ‘rigorous and extensive’ investigations, including thousands of pioneering tests in a bid to find out the cause which has so far never been identified except in 31 humans and two cats.

Instead experts later said it was more likely the source was ‘a local zoonotic (from animals) infection’ and likely to be 'in the environment' rather than one single source. As a result, Dorset residents and visitors are urged to remain vigilant and protect themselves by following hygiene advice.

But those who live with a daily reminder of its effects, have criticised Public Health England for not warning and informing the public of the dangerous bug sooner – and they hope lessons will be learned.

The report states PHE was planning to speak out about the outbreak at the end of November - ironically when concerned families first spoke out.

However, by this time Freddy Osborne, Isaac Mortlock, then three, and his auntie Jessica Archer feared they would die after contracting the bug in July and August, there was a further ‘sporadic’ case in Poole and it had already led to the temporary closure of a Blandford nursery when small children were left hospitalised with the bug from October 11 and throughout November.

According to the report, a third child linked to the nursery was admitted to hospital on Friday, November 21, officials carried out screening at the nursery on Monday, November 24 and the nursery closed voluntarily on Wednesday, November 26 – the same day the Daily Echo first reported the outbreak.

The three-part document states from July to November 20, there were 21 cases and 13 people showed symptoms. Of these seven children and one adult developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) and all required intensive care. Another adult had severe HUS-like symptoms and needed colorectal surgery, it adds.

A specialist Outbreak Control Team (OCT), made up of various agencies, was not convened until November 3 when two cases from Blandford Forum were also confirmed as E.coli VTEC 055 because, according to PHE, the previous cases were ‘unconnected’ and ‘not outside the seasonal norm for numbers of E.coli cases'.

That meant measures to inform GPs, microbiologists, hospital specialists and the media were not taken previously.

The report states an OCT is ‘urgently convened usually within 24 hours unless initial investigations provides strong evidence that the cases have a different source'.

As the number of cases increased, health bosses decided details of the investigation should be made public.

The report reads: “Unfortunately, between the Outbreak Control Team meeting when a proactive stance was agreed and the sign-off process begun, full and detailed information about the outbreak was leaked to the local newspaper which then developed a ‘cover-up’ theme in some of the coverage.”

It adds: “In order to mitigate this, PHE proactively contacted the regional BBC Health Correspondent and offered a full access briefing, including a visit to PHE laboratories.”

Further cases of E.coli 055 were reported in May 2015 with a family of two children and one adult developing HUS, in July and several cases in September and November 2015 across the county before the investigation closed in March last year.

Public Health England say though no further cases of the rare E.coli with links to Dorset have been seen since late 2015, they remain vigilant and are ready to investigate should any future cases emerge.

The Animal Plant and Health Agency have developed a new test using microscopic magnetic beads to investigate the source of future outbreaks of the strain and additional screening guidelines have been put in place for the outbreak.

Earlier this year PHE warned E.coli VTEC 055 is ‘a very serious infection and can be passed easily from person to person and young children are particularly easily affected' adding 'we know that the bacteria causing the infection can survive in the environment, so good hand hygiene is important to prevent the spread.'

Despite the current public advice highlighting the importance of good hygiene, the agency has defended its decision not to inform the public about the infection or issue any warnings earlier.

In an interview with the Daily Echo, Trish Mannes, deputy director for health protection Public Health England South East said "it wasn't a failure in summer 2014 because despite very thorough investigations into links there were none found" adding the cases weren't unusual for the time of year so "there wasn't a public health message to give".

She added there were between 600 to 1000 cases of VTEC strains of E.coli every year in England although admitted not all cases ended up in hospital.

Georgie Tombleson, regional communications manager for PHE, added the agency must be "proportionate" about information it releases to the public adding if it constantly pushes warning messages out "people will become desensitised".

Instead good hygiene messaging is distributed through schools and at places such as farms and pet shops.

In the Dorset case, the agency said they communicated with the nursery to 'prevent ongoing transmission at a case level so public messages weren't necessary.'

However, in response to questions posed by the Daily Echo, Trish Mannes conceded the communications strategy "will be different" and they will inform the public if there is a further outbreak - whether cases are linked or not.

She said: "It will be different because we learnt what 055 is and how it is potentially transmitted.

"This was an incredibly detailed response. There aren't any holes in it. The reality is this was a robust investigation where we exceeded the recommendations from experts and the guidelines."