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11 dead in Germany as killer cucumber bacteria spreads

Germany on Monday called crisis talks amid warnings that an outbreak of a highly virulent strain of bacteria found on imported cucumbers has already killed 11 and is spreading.

More than two weeks after the food poisoning outbreak was first reported in the north of the country, the number of confirmed or suspected cases has reached 1,200, according to media reports.

There was no immediate official confirmation of the figure, but the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has described the outbreak of potentially deadly strain of E. coli as “one of the largest worldwide and the largest ever reported in Germany”.

Authorities warned against eating raw vegetables after traces of the bacteria were found on organic cucumbers from Spain last week. But confusion reigned on the source of the outbreak.

Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) can result in full-blown haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a disease that causes bloody diarrhoea and serious liver damage and which can result in death.

“Normally we see about 1,000 cases per year, but we’ve now had some 1,200 cases in just 10 days,” Jan Galle, director of the Luedenscheid clinic in western Germany, told ZDF public television.

“And we know that this time the EHEC strain is especially virulent and resistant, and has led to a very high number of HUS” cases, he added.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s national disease institute, warned people not to eat raw cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce, especially in northern Germany where the outbreak began.

It reported 329 confirmed HUS cases nationwide and three confirmed deaths.

But regional authorities, who have been quicker to report deaths linked to HUS, put the toll at 11 after a 91-year-old woman in the western city of Paderborn died Sunday.

Ten of the dead were women and 10 of the victims lived in northern Germany.

Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner was holding an emergency meeting Monday afternoon with Health Minister Daniel Bahr and regional state representatives to discuss the outbreak, her ministry announced.

The outbreak has also affected several other European countries, including Britain, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, though most cases appeared to involve people who had travelled from Germany, the Stockholm centre said.

RKI president Reinhard Burger said the source of the contamination had not yet been clearly identified.

But his organisation said last week that a study had shown that all those affected had eaten significantly above-average amounts of tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers.

“At the moment, we can’t reliably say what the actual source of contamination is,” Burger said.

Many German supermarkets and shops removed all Spanish-grown vegetables from their shelves and Belgium also announced it was blocking cucumber imports from Spain.

Opinions on whether the disease can be passed from person to person differed.

“We know the EHEC can also be propagated by contact between people,” Galle said, without providing details.

But Ansgar Lohse, from the Eppendorf University Clinic in Hamburg, where most cases are being treated, said “we’re not yet sure there is such a risk”.

Rolf Stahl, a neurologist at the clinic, told a news conference Monday that 58 patients with HUS were currently being treated there.

“About a third have lost all kidney functions” and have had to be put on dialysis, he added.

Doctors at the clinic said they were experimenting with a new type of monoclonal antibodies’ drug, Eculizumab, which, while not officially approved, had been administered to 11 patients in a bid to save their lives.

Twenty-one of the HUS patients in the Eppendorf clinic were children, aged between 18 months and 16 years.

The clinic said the number of patients being admitted was dropping, but warned of possible new cases as the period of incubation for the bacteria could be as long as a week.