Mystery deepens over E. coli poisoning

June 4, 2011

An outbreak of killer E. coli that has spread to 12 countries and killed 19 people may be linked to a Hamburg festival in May and could have claimed a 20th victim, reports said on Saturday.

German weekly newspaper Focus said authorities were looking closely at a harbour festival that took place in Hamburg on May 6-8 and that drew 1.5 million visitors from Germany and abroad.

The newspaper noted that the first reported case of E. coli infection followed just a week later in the city's university hospital.

Germany's national disease institute The Robert-Koch Institute, however, said there did not appear to be a connection. "Press information regarding a link between the E. coli infections and large gatherings does not correspond with the institute's knowledge," German news agency DPA quoted it as saying.

Local media also said Saturday a man in his 50s who died in Brandenberg may be the 20th victim in Europe but the cause of death was uncertain because he had several other infections as well as E. coli.

The latest confirmed death was of an 80-year-old woman in the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Friday.

The European Commission on Saturday said it was preparing to send a team of experts to Germany to help speed up efforts to locate the source of the outbreak, a statement said.

So far, scientific tests have failed to support a link to the epidemic, the European Union's Reference Laboratory for E. coli in Rome has said.

Faced with the mystery, German reports said police were investigating a possible deliberate act and were also checking two restaurants in the northern town of Lubeck, one in which 17 diners fell ill and another in which eight women were affected, one of whom died.

Christian Seyfert, a spokesman for the regional consumer protection ministry told AFP speculation over the eateries' link to the outbreak was unfounded. But he added: "There are different elements in different regional states.

Germany is facing its 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. A patient who died in Sweden had recently returned from Germany.

Federal Health Minister Daniel Bahr will on Sunday visit the Hamburg hospital where several of the victims died, the government announced Saturday.

Cases of E. coli poisoning have also been reported in Austria, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. Each is related to German travel.

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

A large majority are female, suggesting the source is "probably something that women prefer more than men," Andrea Ellis, an epidemiologist at the World Health Organisation's (WHO) department of food safety, said in Geneva.

In some cases the infection can lead to the potentially life-threatening condition haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a kidney disease.

At least 552 people, 520 of them in Germany, have HUS, according to the WHO, with 10 other European countries plus the United States reporting HUS or EHEC infections.

The WHO has identified the bacteria as a rare E. coli strain never before connected to an outbreak of food poisoning. But researchers in Hamburg said earlier they and Chinese colleagues had found the strain was a "new type" which is extremely aggressive and resistant to antibiotics.

The health crisis has also triggered trade tensions in Europe.

Berlin pointed the blame for the outbreak at cucumbers imported from Spain, provoking a backlash from Madrid which said it plans to demand damages from Europe for slander.

Tens of thousands of tonnes of Spanish produce have been unsold, costing Spanish growers an estimated 200 million euros ($290 million) a week.

And some countries such as Russia and Lebanon banned vegetables from the EU, in moves criticised by the 27-member bloc.

To ease tension over the heavy losses, European agriculture ministers are scheduled to meet in Luxembourg for talks after June 17, according to diplomats.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Creation of synthetic horsepox virus could lead to more effective smallpox vaccine

January 19, 2018
UAlberta researchers created a new synthetic virus that could lead to the development of a more effective vaccine against smallpox. The discovery demonstrates how techniques based on the use of synthetic DNA can be used to ...

Study ends debate over role of steroids in treating septic shock

January 19, 2018
The results from the largest ever study of septic shock could improve treatment for critically ill patients and save health systems worldwide hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

New approach could help curtail hospitalizations due to influenza infection

January 18, 2018
More than 700,000 Americans were hospitalized due to illnesses associated with the seasonal flu during the 2014-15 flu season, according to federal estimates. A radical new approach to vaccine development at UCLA may help ...

Flu may be spread just by breathing, new study shows; coughing and sneezing not required

January 18, 2018
It is easier to spread the influenza virus (flu) than previously thought, according to a new University of Maryland-led study released today. People commonly believe that they can catch the flu by exposure to droplets from ...

Zika virus damages placenta, which may explain malformed babies

January 18, 2018
Though the Zika virus is widely known for a recent outbreak that caused children to be born with microencephaly, or having a small head, and other malformations, scientists have struggled to explain how the virus affects ...

Certain flu virus mutations may compensate for fitness costs of other mutations

January 18, 2018
Seasonal flu viruses continually undergo mutations that help them evade the human immune system, but some of these mutations can reduce a virus's potency. According to new research published in PLOS Pathogens, certain mutations ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 04, 2011
Well we'll see if this one has legs. Will it make it to underdeveloped but overpopulated countries? Interesting that it seems to prefer young babymakers.

Just between you and me, I suspect Intelligent Design. The sort that resides at Bayer or Pfizer. Or Ft Detrick.
3 / 5 (2) Jun 04, 2011
Probably just a small 'test'.
1 / 5 (3) Jun 04, 2011
Probably just a small 'test'.
No doubt. 'We'll try it out on Germans. The world will never suspect it's Real Purpose then. As easy as spreading HIV to arabs in free polio vaccines. Muhahahahaaaa!'
not rated yet Jun 04, 2011
No, seriously, someone may have messed with some e Coli and spread it at a place where large groups of people congregated.

Or is it crazy to think it's possible that someone has the know-how to mess with germs and viruses? We keep getting warned by the government that bad guys out there are trying different things to get us. When something happens you get called a kook for making the connection? Or gasp, I guess it's not real unless the GOVERNMENT tells us it is?
1 / 5 (1) Jun 04, 2011
No you misunderstand me. I agree but I am just having some fun with it. Engineered pandemics are Inevitable. They may have happened already with impressive results, using either as-found organisms or tailored ones.

The Irish potato famine came from Peru, same place where the potatos came from. Peruvians knew enough to cultivate many different strains of potato to avoid blight, but the irish were only given one. It grew well in the harsh environment. Catholic pops exploded.

Then the blight was introduced. One third of the pop starved or emigrated, and the colonies enjoyed a large influx of yet another ethnic group for the melting pot.

And then there was HIV.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.