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Germany has 11 E.coli deaths, world's worst outbreak

posted 30 May 2011, 07:52 by Mpelembe   [ updated 30 May 2011, 08:50 ]

German ministers discuss E.coli outbreak which so far left ten people dead and infected roughly 300 in what European health experts have called one of the biggest of its kind worldwide.

German ministers and disease experts gathered in Berlin on Monday (May 30) to discuss an E. coli outbreak that has so far killed 11 people and made more than 300 seriously ill in Germany.

Experts say the illness has now spread to other European countries and expect it to worsen in the coming days.

The source of the virulent strain of the bacteria is unknown, German authorities said on Monday ahead of the crisis meeting of federal and state officials in Berlin. Most of the deaths have been in northern Germany.

The E. coli pathogen has been identified on cucumbers imported from Spain but it is unclear if they were contaminated there, during transport or in Germany.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Germany's Minister for Consumer Affairs, Ilsne Aigner said that they were doing all they could to stop the loss of any more lives.

"We have been able to point out, together with the responsible authorities, where problems could occur and that is why the warnings have gone out. Consumer protection is our main priority here as this is about lives," she told reporters outside the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control and protection in Berlin where the meeting was to take place.

There are 36 cases of suspected E. coli in Sweden, all linked to travel in northern Germany, authorities said. A small number of cases have been reported in Britain, Denmark, France and the Netherlands, all linked with travel to Germany.

The German government has identified the pathogen as hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious complication of a type of E. coli known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), and said it had killed 11 people and made at least 329 ill.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in a risk assessment that the HUS/STEC outbreak is the largest ever in the world of its kind.

HUS affects the blood, kidneys and, in severe cases, the nervous system and can be particularly serious for children and the elderly. Some 60 cases of HUS are reported annually in Germany, the government said.

Grieve said his hospital had 82 cases of HUS and 115 confirmed E. coli cases, and said the number of cases there had doubled within the past few days.

The northern port city of Hamburg alone has reported 488 cases of E. coli since the outbreak began in mid-May and has 94 cases of HUS.

A hospital in the city said it was transferring patients with less serious illnesses to other clinics to cope with the flood of HUS patients.

Speaking to reporters in Berlin, Germany's new health minister Daniel Bahr thanked medical workers for their efforts in helping those in need.

German authorities have warned consumers to avoid eating cucumbers, lettuces and tomatoes and have ordered some products removed from store shelves.

This has led to problems for the country's vegetable growers who have seen a fall in order numbers since the disease became apparent.

"The problem is that the amount of harvest continues to grow and the sales will not grow in the next few days unless someone makes it clear that fruit and vegetables can be eaten. Otherwise we are going to have some very big problems to deal with," said Michael Bong, a vegetable grower who also has a farm in western Germany.

He went on to explain to Reuters that his vegetables are safe to eat due to the type of dung which he uses.

"Tomatoes are only watered in the green houses by drip irrigation. The dung which is used here is only mineral dungs which are mixed together and put into the water for the plants. So there is no chance that these germs could come into contact with the plants, or rather the product," he told Reuters TV.

Authorities in Sweden have warned Swedes travelling to north Germany to steer clear of cucumbers, tomatoes and salad.

Austria's food safety agency ordered a recall of organically grown cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant supplied by a Spanish producer thought to be the source of the outbreak. It said 33 Austrian stores were affected.