Germany signals hope in battle against killer bacteria

8th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Germany on Wednesday signalled hope that the "worst" of a killer bacteria outbreak was over as German 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 24 dead and over 2,300 people ill was dropping, German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said on television Wednesday.

"I can't yet cancel the warnings, but we now have reasons to hope as the number of new infections is continuously dropping," he said some five weeks into the outbreak.

"There will likely still be new cases, and we must unfortunately still reckon with new deaths, but the number of new infections is clearly dropping, and the worst of the illness is behind us," he added.

His comments came just ahead of emergency talks in Berlin between himself, Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner, their counterparts from all of the country's 16 states, public health institute representatives, and EU health commissioner John Dalli.

Dalli called in an interview with Die Welt newspaper for closer cooperation between German and foreign experts in fighting the outbreak, mainly centred in northern Germany but which has seen people fall ill in more than a dozen countries.

"We must count on the experience and expertise of all of Europe and even beyond Europe," Dalli said.

"I cannot overstate how important it is that we should all closely cooperate and share our common knowledge to bring to an end this outbreak as fast as possible," he added.

In Germany too criticism of the government's response to the crisis has grown.

The Berlin director of the Max Planck Institute for biological infection, Stefan Kaufmann, criticised the government's contradictory public warnings, telling Die Welt this "worried people unnecessarily".

"The government should appoint a commissioner for global health" to deal with such infections, he also said.

The scare has led puzzled officials to warn consumers off raw tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and sprouts, prompting the European Commission to ask EU states for 150 million euros ($220 million) in aid for hard-hit farmers.

European agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos urged Germany to quickly pinpoint the driver of the lethal bacterial strain, warning that consumers were losing confidence every day the outbreak remains a mystery.

"Without this answer, it will be difficult to regain the trust of consumers, which is essential for the market to regain its strength," he said at emergency talks in Luxembourg on Tuesday.

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.

"European solidarity must rise to the occasion," Laruelle said.

Ciolos came out of Luxembourg talks pledging to write a "substantially" bigger cheque than the initial offer of 150 million euros.

He indicated he would come up with a new figure as early as Wednesday, but warned that it would be difficult to meet demands for full compensation after he proposed to cover 30 percent of losses.

© 2011 AFP

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