Scientists at Hamburg's Institute for Hygiene and Environment have found the deadly E. coli bacteria causing the outbreak in northern Germany, city Health Minister Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks said Thursday. Three out of four cucumbers carrying the dangerous strain of the bacteria were from an organic shipment from Spain being sold in Hamburg supermarkets.
"Information on their origins and further details are now being assembled," she said, adding that the test results may not be relevant to infections arising in other areas. "It can't be ruled out that other products will come into question as the source of infection," she said.
Meanwhile the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's disease control authority, issued a warning on Wednesday against the consumption of raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce purchased in northern Germany. Their research showed that the majority of the some 214 confirmed infection cases consumed these items before falling ill. Since the outbreak began the second week of May there have been a total of more than 400 cases, including those still yet to be confirmed, while two people have died.
The life-threatening intestinal infection has since spread into other countries, as well, with cases reported in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain, the European Commission reported on Thursday afternoon. It is believed some of the ill may have been infected after consuming produce on trips to Germany.
On Wednesday night researchers at the University of Münster hospital said they had identified the E. coli strain responsible for the dangerous outbreak as HUSEC 41. It is one of 42 types of E. coli that has infected German patients since 1996. Though it is a well-known strain, it is seldom and has never been the cause of an outbreak anywhere in the world, clinic director Helge Karch said.
He and his team are working to create a test to determine whether patients have been infected with the bacteria strain, which is reportedly resistant to various antibiotics. They plan to have it ready for hospitals in the coming days.
E. coli bacteria usually live in the intestines of ruminants and can be transferred to humans who eat uncooked food. Symptoms of an enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) infection include bloody diarrhea and stomach cramps. In some cases, an infection can cause a disease called haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), which can lead to kidney failure and even death.
German farmers said they were outraged by the Robert Koch Institute's recommendation to avoid vegetables from northern Germany, claiming it could lead to a major loss of income.
"The effects are catastrophic," said Andreas Brügger, head of the German fruit trade association (DFHV) said, adding that food chains and cafeterias had already begun rejecting produce. "For our business it's a complete breakdown," he said.
Michael Marker, the owner of a large Hamburg vegetable market, also complained of cancelled orders. The larger the company, "the more vigorously they are cancelling produce orders," he told the financial daily Handelsblatt.
Any of the contaminated vegetables in question likely came from abroad because German produce hasn't reached the market yet, a spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein said. The Robert Koch Institute warning should therefore be interpreted as a warning on imported produce, he said.
kla -- with wires
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