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Europe / health : killer cucumber bacteria spreads

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Germany on Monday called crisis talks amid  warnings that an outbreak of a highly virulent strain of bacteria found on  imported cucumbers is spreading after already killing 11 people.

More than two weeks after the food poisoning outbreak was first reported in  the north of the country, the number of confirmed or suspected cases has  reached 1,200, according to media reports.

There was no immediate official confirmation of the figure, but the  Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has  described the outbreak of potentially deadly strain of E. coli as “one of the  largest worldwide and the largest ever reported in Germany”.    Authorities warned against eating raw vegetables after traces of the  bacteria were found on organic cucumbers from Spain last week. But confusion  reigned on the source of the outbreak.

Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) can result in full-blown haemolytic  uraemic syndrome (HUS), a disease that causes bloody diarrhoea and serious  liver damage and which can result in death.

“Normally we see about 1,000 cases per year, but we’ve now had some 1,200  cases in just 10 days,” Jan Galle, director of the Luedenscheid clinic in  western Germany, told ZDF public television.

“And we know that this time the EHEC strain is especially virulent and  resistant, and has led to a very high number of HUS” cases, he added.    The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s national disease institute,  warned people not to eat raw cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce, especially in  northern Germany where the outbreak began.

It reported 329 confirmed HUS cases nationwide and three confirmed deaths.    But regional authorities, who have been quicker to report deaths linked to  HUS, put the toll at 11 after a 91-year-old woman in the western city of  Paderborn died Sunday.

Ten of the dead were women and 10 of the victims lived in northern Germany.    Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner was holding an emergency meeting  Monday afternoon with Health Minister Daniel Bahr and regional state  representatives to discuss the outbreak, her ministry announced.

The outbreak has also affected several other European countries, including  Britain, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, though most cases appeared to  involve people who had travelled from Germany, the Stockholm centre said.    RKI president Reinhard Burger said the source of the contamination had not  yet been clearly identified.

But his organisation said last week that a study had shown that all those  affected had eaten significantly above-average amounts of tomatoes, lettuce  and cucumbers.

“At the moment, we can’t reliably say what the actual source of  contamination is,” Burger said.

Many German supermarkets and shops removed all Spanish-grown vegetables  from their shelves and Belgium also announced it was blocking cucumber imports  from Spain.

Opinions on whether the disease can be passed from person to person  differed.

“We know the EHEC can also be propagated by contact between people,” Galle  said, without providing details.

But Ansgar Lohse, from the Eppendorf University Clinic in Hamburg, where  most cases are being treated, said “we’re not yet sure there is such a risk”.

Rolf Stahl, a neurologist at the clinic, told a news conference Monday that  58 patients with HUS were currently being treated there.

“About a third have lost all kidney functions” and have had to be put on  dialysis, he added.

Doctors at the clinic said they were experimenting with a new type of  monoclonal antibodies’ drug, Eculizumab, which, while not officially approved,  had been administered to 11 patients in a bid to save their lives.

Twenty-one of the HUS patients in the Eppendorf clinic were children, aged  between 18 months and 16 years.

The clinic said the number of patients being admitted was dropping, but  warned of possible new cases as the period of incubation for the bacteria  could be as long as a week.

Berlin, May 30, 2011 (AFP)