/ 3 June 2011

Germany: E. coli outbreak ‘stabilising’

Germany: E. Coli Outbreak 'stabilising'

A puzzling E. coli outbreak that has killed at least 18 people appears to be stabilising, a senior German doctor said on Friday, as the number of countries reporting cases rose to 12.

Authorities said they were no closer to identifying the origin of the outbreak, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended an earlier false alarm on organic Spanish cucumbers, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he would not allow Russians to “get poisoned” by European vegetable imports.

“The situation is that the number of new infections appears to be stabilising somewhat,” Reinhard Brunkhorst, president of the German Nephrology Society, told reporters in Hamburg, the epicentre of the scare.

But he added: “We are dealing here in fact with the biggest epidemic caused by bacteria in recent decades.”

All but one of the fatalities since the outbreak of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) poisoning began last month have occurred in Germany. The 18th, who died in Sweden, had recently returned from there.

Regional German health authorities have reported more than 2 000 cases of people falling ill with EHEC poisoning, with symptoms including stomach cramps, diarrhoea, fever and vomiting.

In some cases it can lead to bloody diarrhoea and potentially life-threatening conditions such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a kidney disease.

In the dark
At least 499 people, 470 of them in Germany, have HUS, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), with 10 other European countries plus the United States reporting HUS or EHEC infections.

All cases except two are in people who live in or had recently visited northern Germany, or, in one case, had contact with a visitor from there, the WHO said.

Authorities are still in the dark as to the origin of the outbreak, but Brunkhorst said there are currently no indications that the bug can be transmitted from person to person.

Merkel defended last week’s false warning against organic Spanish cucumbers in a phone call on Thursday with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, saying authorities were “duty-bound to inform the public at all times”.

The advisory, retracted this week, left tens of thousands of tonnes of Spanish produce unsold, costing Spanish growers an estimated €200-million a week.

“Both leaders agreed that the priority now must be to identify the source of the EHEC outbreak in order to be able to take further measures to protect the public,” Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement.

Both Berlin and Madrid said that they had agreed to seek compensation at European level. Farmers in other countries have also complained that they have been affected.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s national disease centre, still advises consumers, primarily in the north of the country, to avoid cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce — whatever their origin.

“It doesn’t matter where the products come from. They can be from Germany, Israel or wherever … At the moment we are unable to narrow it down,” Andreas Hensel, head of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, said on Friday.

Russia, meanwhile, has banned vegetable imports from the European Union in response to the scare, earning the ire of the European Commission, which called the move “disproportionate”.

Fernando Valenzuela, the head of an EU delegation to Russia, said the ban went “in the opposition direction” of Moscow’s hopes to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Putin said he would check the validity of Moscow’s ban but warned he would not allow Russians to “get poisoned” for the sake of its WTO membership bid. — AFP