The E. coli outbreak that has killed at least 17 and infected more than 1,500 people in Germany is a completely new and more deadly strain, the World Health Organization said today. According to Hilde Kruse, a food safety expert at the WHO, the bacteria is “a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before … [its characteristics] make it more virulent and toxin-producing.” This strain can cause haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS), a “deadly infection” that affects the blood and can cause acute kidney failure.
16 of those who have died so far have been Germans; one person was from Sweden. In Germany, there have been 1,064 cases of bloody diarrhea and 470 cases of HUS, says the BBC. Three British nationals, all of whom traveled to Germany, have been infected. The New York Times also reports that two people in the US have been hospitalized with kidney failure after returning from Hamburg. Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of food-borne disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says that tests are being done to see if they have a strain of E. coli that matches the German strain.
According to the New York Times, scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute who have collaborated with German scientists say that the new E. coli strain carries “several antibiotic resistant genes” which make “antibiotic treatment extremely difficult.” Even more alarming, the strain is said to be “entirely new,” “super-toxic” and similar to a strain known as EAEC 55989, which has been found in the Central African Republic and causes serious diarrhea.
Scientists say that two-thirds of the cases have been found in young women, while outbreaks of HUS usually occur in young children and the elderly. While most of the cases have occurred in northern Germany, officials say the outbreak has spread to almost all areas of the country.
German scientists initially said the outbreak was from cucumbers imported from Spain, but are now, as the Guardian reports, saying that the “precise source of the disease may never be traced.” A health official, Reinhard Burger, head of the Robert Koch Institute, said it could be “indeed weeks or months” before a source might be found, if ever, and that 365 new cases were reported on Wednesday, with one-quarter involving the potentially lethal complications of HUS.
The New York Times says that the E. coli outbreak’s impact has “spread increasingly to European politics and the continent’s economic relations.” Russia — one of the biggest markets for European Union farmers — has banned the import of all produce from the EU. Spain is seeking compensation for all of its farmers from Germany, claiming that lost sales “could put 70,000 people out of work” and cost 200 million euros a week. In Germany, major growers are losing up $7 million daily as health officials warn consumers not to eat cucumbers, lettuces and tomatoes.
The deadly E. coli outbreak is a sobering reminder for all of us to take precautions about food contamination, especially with warmer summer weather, cookouts and barbecues ahead in the summer months. Care2 blogger Tracy Petrucci has some helpful suggestions for avoiding food illness, from washing hand and produce to washing reusable grocery bags, all important tips to keep ourselves safe.
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