WHO: Unknown E. Coli Variant Has Killed 18

Posted June 2nd, 2011 at 8:15 pm (UTC-5)
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The World Health Organization says a deadly outbreak of E. coli bacteria that has killed 18 people in Europe is a unique strain that has never been found in infected patients before.

The United Nations agency said Thursday that preliminary genetic tests suggest that the highly contagious strain behind the outbreak could be a genetic recombination of two different E. coli bacteria.

Scientists in China who have analyzed the bacteria behind the German outbreak confirmed that this variant has not been involved in any previous infections.

The outbreak is the deadliest in modern history to involve E. coli, and appears to be the second- or third-largest in terms of the number of people who have become ill.

A food safety expert at the WHO, Hilde Kruse, said the deadly strain has various characteristics that make it more toxic and more virulent than other strains.

More than 1,600 people in 11 European countries have been sickened by the rapid spread of the bacteria, with most infections and deaths occurring in Germany.

Health officials have been unable to find the cause or origin of the outbreak, but similar infections come primarily from contaminated foods.

With the uncertainty surrounding the latest outbreak, concern about European produce is spreading. The United Arab Emirates on Thursday banned the import of cucumbers from Spain, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Russia said it is banning the import of all fresh vegetables from the European Union — an action the EU immediately called “disproportionate.” The EU, which exported $853 million worth of vegetables to Russia last year, said it would seek an explanation from Moscow.

Russia said vegetables already imported from EU countries will be seized. The chief of Russia's consumer protection agency, Gennady Onishchenko, urged his countrymen to avoid imported vegetables in favor of domestic products.

Germany initially pointed to cucumbers from Spain as a possible source of the contamination, but further tests showed that those vegetables were not the cause of the outbreak.

The erroneous conclusion angered Spanish officials. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Spain will seek reparations from authorities in Europe for the damages its vegetable growers have suffered.

Germany's national disease center says the outbreak started nearly two weeks before the first infections were reported in mid-May. The infection can result in a secondary disease that attacks the victims' kidneys, sometimes causing seizures, strokes, comas and death.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said Thursday that the outbreak of the current strain of bacteria has been rarely reported worldwide. It recommended hygiene and cooking foods thoroughly to prevent infection.

Vegetable growers across Europe say they are suffering major economic losses as the mystery goes unsolved. Spain says it is losing $288 million a week because of import bans and weak demand for the produce, while the Netherlands says it is losing $43 million.

The president of Spain's produce export trade group said almost all Europeans have stopped buying Spanish vegetables and fruit.

The World Health Organization said Thursday that it does not recommend any trade restrictions related to the outbreak.