BERLIN, June 8 – Germany on Wednesday expressed hope that the "worst" of a killer bacteria outbreak was over as national and European Union health and consumer affairs officials met for urgent talks on the crisis.
The number of new infections from a highly virulent strain of E. coli bacteria which has left at least 25 people dead and more than 2,600 ill was falling, German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said after the meeting.
"We cannot give the all-clear but based on the evaluation of the data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI, the national health centre), there is reason for justified optimism that we have the worst behind us at the national level," he told reporters.
"For a few days, the number of new infections has continued to drop."
Bahr added that Germany, which has seen all but one of the deaths from the lethal strain, would maintain its warning against eating raw tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and various sprouts until the cause of the mysterious outbreak was named.
He spoke after emergency talks in Berlin with federal Consumer Affairs and Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner, counterparts from all of Germany\’s 16 states, public health institute representatives and EU health commissioner John Dalli.
RKI said it was not certain whether the decline in new cases was linked to consumers avoiding the vegetables that have been blacklisted.
In light of the scare, the European Commission asked EU states Tuesday to earmark 150 million euros ($220 million) in aid for hard-hit farmers.
Confirmed infections in Germany stood at 2,648 Tuesday in the latest count, with 75 percent of cases in the north of the country, RKI said.
In addition to the 25 deaths in Germany, one woman who had just returned from Germany died in Sweden. But infections have been reported in more than a dozen countries, with symptoms ranging from bloody diarrhoea to, in full-blown cases, kidney failure.
Amid criticism from European partners over Germany\’s public health warnings — including a false alarm over Spanish imported cucumbers — Dalli defended the country\’s "impressive" crisis management.
He said that as long as people were still dying, German authorities and their European partners had to zero in on finding its cause.
"We need to focus all our efforts on supporting the patients suffering from the disease, and addressing the pressure on the sector concerned, deploying all efforts to identify the source, ensuring the right information to the public and fighting disproportionate trade restrictions," he said.
"In dealing with this outbreak, the importance of rigourous science and coordinated, transparent communication (and) broad and deep investigations cannot be over-emphasised."
Despite widespread testing of foodstuffs, restaurants and farms, authorities to date have been unable to trace the origin of the outbreak.
Lower Saxony agriculture minister Gert Lindemann said experts had failed to find traces of contamination at a local organic farm producing sprouts on which suspicion had fallen at the weekend.
But he did not rule out it could still be the source of the outbreak of the virulent bacteria, saying that three of the farm\’s employees took ill last month with tell-tale diarrhoea.
The Berlin director of the Max Planck Institute for biological infection, Stefan Kaufmann, meanwhile criticised the government\’s contradictory public warnings, telling Die Welt newspaper this "worried people unnecessarily".
"The government should appoint a commissioner for global health" to deal with such infections, he also said.
Belgian Agriculture Minister Sabine Laruelle estimated losses to EU farmers "in the hundreds of millions of euros" after countries such as Russia banned vegetable imports and European consumers turned their backs on greens.
The Russian ban was expected to figure prominently at a summit meeting Thursday of EU and Russian leaders.
The European Union has called for Russia to immediately lift the ban, which it said lacked a firm scientific basis.