No Answers on Europe’s E. Coli Outbreak; WHO Warns of Unsupervised Antibiotic Use

Posted June 3rd, 2011 at 3:10 pm (UTC-5)
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With scientists on Friday still puzzling over the cause of a potentially lethal form of E. coli that has killed at least 18 people and sickened hundreds more in Europe, the World Health Organization is cautioning against the use of antibiotics and other medications.

Instead the U.N. health agency is calling on people to quickly seek medical help as the highly contagious bacteria can result in acute kidney failure even after the symptoms have cleared up.

Although Germany's health agency on 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.

Infections have been reported in 12 countries, with many cases linked back to northern Germany. German officials at first mistakenly blamed imported Spanish produce for the deadly outbreak, sparking a sharp rebuke from Spanish officials.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has agreed to 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.”

The head of the EU's delegation to Russia, Fernando Valenzuela, said Moscow's decision goes against World Trade Organization rules, an organization Moscow has been pushing to join. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Friday he “would not poison Russians” just to act in the spirit of the WTO.

Mrs. Merkel told Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero that she regretted the damage that had been caused. German officials first voiced the suspicion that cucumbers imported from Spain had sparked the widespread infections that now have sickened at least 1,730.

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.

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. The WHO believes the bacteria is a rare, genetic recombination of two different E. coli bacteria strains.

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.

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

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