, Germany, June 3 – German doctors are set to give an update on a still unexplained outbreak of E. coli poisoning that has killed 18 people and made more than 2,000 ill in Europe and beyond.
Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) can cause bloody diarrhoea and potentially fatal liver damage, as well as full-blown haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a serious kidney complaint. Some 500 people have contracted HUS.
US health officials said Thursday that three people were suspected to have fallen sick from the bacteria after travelling to Germany, where the mystery outbreak has killed 17. Sweden has also reported one fatality.
"This strain, isolated from cases in the infection outbreak in Germany, has never been seen in an outbreak before," World Health Organisation spokesman Gregory Hartl said on Thursday.
"It has been seen in sporadic cases and is very rare."
Officials in the northern city of Hamburg, the epicentre, initially blamed Spanish cucumbers but tests this week showed that while they carried EHEC bacteria, it was not the strain responsible for the contamination.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said Spain, already struggling with a weak economy and high unemployment, would seek compensation over the false allegations.
"Yesterday, it became clear, with the analyses carried out by the Spanish agency for food safety, that there is not the slightest indication that the origin of the serious infection is any Spanish product," he said Thursday.
Russia banned vegetable imports from the European Union, in a move the bloc slammed as "disproportionate". The United Arab Emirates also banned cucumber imports from Germany, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Spain\’s fruit and vegetable exporters estimate they have lost more than 200 million euros ($290 million) a week as 150,000 tonnes of produce went unsold in a Europe-wide reaction to the outbreak.
Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone with Zapatero and expressed her "understanding for the difficult economic situation of the Spanish vegetable sector," the German government said late Thursday.
"Both leaders agreed that the priority now must be to identify the source of the EHEC outbreak in order to be a ble to take further measures to protect the public," Merkel\’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.
© AFP Fruits and vegetables are for sale at an outdoor mini market in Moscow
© AFP Natalia Kolesnikova
Despite the false alarm over Spanish produce, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany\’s national disease centre, still advises consumers to avoid cucumbers, tomatoes and salad — whatever their origin.
"It doesn\’t matter where the products come from. They can be from Germany, Israel or wherever … At the moment we are unable to narrow it down," Andreas Hensel, head of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), said Friday.