Death Toll Rises in Europe’s E. Coli Outbreak

Posted June 3rd, 2011 at 8:10 pm (UTC-5)
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The death toll in Europe from the outbreak of a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria rose to 19 Friday when another person succumbed to the infection in Germany.

The disease is now reported in 12 countries, including Britain and the United States, infecting about 2,000 people, most of them in Germany. All of the deaths also have been in Germany, except for one woman who died in Sweden after a visit to Germany.

But a German doctor said Friday that there are signs that the situation is normalizing. Reinhard Brunkhorst, president of the German Nephrology Society, told reporters in Hamburg, where the outbreak is centered, that the number of new infections seems to be stabilizing.

The World Health Organization cautioned against the random use of antibiotics and other medications. But, the U.N. health agency is urging people to quickly seek medical help, as the highly contagious bacteria can cause acute kidney failure. The symptoms include stomach cramps, diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

Although Germany's health agency Friday advised against eating raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuces, particularly in northern Germany, it acknowledged that the source of the bacteria had not yet been identified.

German officials at first mistakenly blamed imported Spanish produce for the deadly outbreak, sparking a sharp rebuke from Spanish officials.

A Spanish farming group says the country's farmers stand to lose $287 million a week if import bans against the country's agricultural products are not lifted.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero Thursday that she would push for European Union financial assistance for Spanish farmers whose export income dropped sharply as a result.

But with the crisis unsolved, Russia said this week said it is banning the import of all fresh vegetables from the European Union — an action the EU immediately called “disproportionate.”

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.

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

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. Scientists say the bacteria is a previously unknown genetic recombination of two different E. coli strains.