BERLIN, May 31 – Germany on Tuesday battled to stop the spread of a killer bacteria traced to imported cucumbers that has killed 14 people, while several countries banned Spanish vegetables, sparking a diplomatic spat.
The source of the outbreak is still unknown but contaminated vegetables appear the most likely vehicle of infection, officials said after identifying some cucumbers from Spain carrying the bacteria.
The Hygiene Institute at Muenster\’s University Clinic in western Germany announced it had put together a test to quickly identify people infected with the so-called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.
The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany\’s national disease institute, said Tuesday it has recorded 373 cases of full-blown haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) along with six deaths.
However regional authorities, who are faster in reporting fatalities, say at least 14 people have died so far and more than 1,200 have been infected.
The test allows identification within hours of the pathogenic agent in the enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) responsible for inducing bloody diarrhoea and kidney failure in the most severely affected patients, the clinic said in a statement.
The pathogenic agent is "especially virulent and able to resist antibiotics", the clinic said.
"This strand can be described as a hybrid or a chimera that combines different virulent traits," according to Professor Helge Karch from the Muenster clinic.
EHEC can develop into haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening condition which has seen some patients suffer epileptic fits and lose all kidney functions.
The Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has described the outbreak as "one of the largest worldwide and the largest ever reported in Germany".
Around Europe, other cases — real or suspected — have been reported in Denmark, Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, France and Switzerland, all of them apparently stemming from Germany.
And a hospital in northern Spain said Tuesday that 40-year-old man who recently returned from Germany was in intensive care with a possible E.coli inflection.
The patient was admitted May 20 and then placed in intensive care after his condition deteriorated, said a statement by the Donostia hospital in San Sebastian.
Meanwhile a number of European countries, including Belgium and Russia, banned vegetables imports from Spain, while Spanish Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar denied that her country was the source of contamination.
"From the beginning, in Germany, Spanish cucumbers have been named as responsible for this situation. We must say that it is not true and we must demand that the Germany authorities wrap up their investigation immediately," she said.
Madrid has threatened to seek compensation from the European Union for lost vegetables sales. Spain is the top European cucumber producer, just ahead of the Netherlands.
Dutch Agriculture Minister Henk Bleker said he could "understand the German authorities\’ attitude," after they recommended that people avoid raw vegetables, especially cucumber, lettuce and tomatoes.
At the same time, he noted this had led to a drastic drop in demand, with Dutch vegetable exports towards Germany "virtually stopped" since Sunday.
Meanwhile, Germany\’s Health Minister Daniel Bahr has warned that "the infection source remains active and we have to reckon with a growing number of cases."