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Source Unknown For European E. Coli Outbreak

June 2, 2011

Enterohaemorrhagic E coli (EHEC) has infected more than 1,500 people in nine nations, claiming at least 17 lives, most of which have occurred in Germany; and so far the source of infection has eluded officials.

Officials have suggested that produce is to blame for the outbreak, but produce testing across the continent has yet to pinpoint which vegetable is the carrier of the bacteria.

“They might never find the cause of the outbreak,” says Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at England’s University of East Anglia. “In most foodborne outbreaks, we don’t know definitively where the contaminated food came from.”

Germany retracted their previous report about Spain being the source of the outbreak, but believed that the warning was the right thing to do since a different strain of E. coli existed in the Spanish cucumbers, reports BBC News.

But the Spanish government says that it was considering legal action against Hamburg for wrongly accusing its produce of carrying the bacteria.

Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba of Spain told radio Cadena Ser, “We do not rule out taking action against the authorities who called into question the quality of our products.”

Spanish farmers claim that they have lost sales of more than $290 million a week since the outbreak, and this could put 70,000 workers out of jobs.

Hamburg EHEC is a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria, and can cause the deadly haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS), which officials say claimed the life of an 84-year-old woman on Sunday.

So far, about half of the HUS patients in Hamburg, Germany clinics have experienced neural disorders three to five days after being infected. Some of these disorders include epileptic fits and slurred speech, reports the German newspaper Die Welt.

Generally, Germany has a maximum of 50 to 60 reported annual cases of HUS, which claims a death rate of up to 5%, says the World Health Organization (WHO).

Most, or about 60%, of EHEC cases in Germany have been women, with 88% over the age of 20 and almost 90% of the HUS cases have been women over the age of 20, reports BBC News.

Experts suggest that this may be due to the fact that women were more likely to eat fresh produce or handle food in the kitchen.

The bacteria can be found in the digestive systems of cows, humans and other mammals.

German disease control agency the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported 1,169 cases of EHEC on Tuesday, and says that about 470 people suffering from HUS. The number of infected is up from 373 on Monday.

HUS normally occurs in only 10% of EHEC infections; however the staggering number recently reported is unprecedented in modern medical history, according to experts in the field. They stress that this particular strain of bacteria could be more deadly than anything before.

“There may well be a great number of asymptomatic cases out there that we’re mission,” says Professor Hunter to the AP.

“This could be a much bigger outbreak than we realize right now.

He adds, “There might also be something genetically different about this particular strain of E.coli that makes it more virulent.”

Cases of EHEC have appeared not only in Germany, but also have been reported in eight other European countries: Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK, reports the WHO.

Most of those infected either live in Germany or have recently visited Germany, with the exception of two cases.

Sweden has reported fifteen HUS cases, resulting in one death; Denmark reported seven cases, the Netherlands has three cases, two cases reported in the UK, and one case in Spain, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

In efforts to curb the outbreak, some countries have banned cucumber imports as well as removed the vegetables from sale.

People are advised to thoroughly wash their fruits and vegetables as well as all cutlery and plates, reminding people to wash their hands before eating.

Image Caption: Low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria, magnified 10,000 times. Each individual bacterium is oblong shaped. Photo by Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU.

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