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Killer bug outbreak ‘stabilises’ as death toll hits 19

A puzzling outbreak of E. coli poisoning that has now spread to 12 countries appears to be stabilising, a senior German doctor said Friday, as the death toll rose to 19.

As authorities continued to hunt the elusive source of the killer bug, the latest death was of an 80-year-old women in a hospital in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the state health office in Rostock reported.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel meanwhile defended an earlier false alarm on organic Spanish cucumbers that angered Madrid, as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he would not allow Russians to “get poisoned” by EU vegetables.

“The situation is that the number of new infections appears to be stabilising somewhat,” Reinhard Brunkhorst, president of the German Nephrology Society, told reporters in Hamburg, the epicentre of the scare.

But he added: “We are dealing here in fact with the biggest epidemic caused by bacteria in recent decades.”

All but one of the fatalities since the outbreak of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) poisoning began last month have occurred in Germany. A patient, who died in Sweden, had recently returned from there.

Regional German health authorities have reported more than 2,000 cases of people falling ill with EHEC poisoning, with symptoms including stomach cramps, diarrhoea, fever and vomiting.

A large majority are female, meaning that the source is “probably something that women prefer more than men,” Andrea Ellis, an epidemiologist at the World Health Organisation’s department of food safety, said in Geneva.

In some cases the infection can lead to bloody diarrhoea and potentially life-threatening conditions such as haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a kidney disease.

At least 499 people, 470 of them in Germany, have HUS, according to the WHO, with 10 other European countries plus the United States reporting HUS or EHEC infections.

All cases except two involve people who live in or had recently visited northern Germany, or, in one case, had contact with a visitor from there, the WHO said.

Merkel defended last week’s false cucumber alert in a phone call Thursday with Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, saying authorities were “duty-bound to inform the public at all times.”

The advisory, retracted this week, left tens of thousands of tonnes of Spanish produce unsold, costing Spanish growers an estimated 200 million euros ($290 million) a week.

“Both leaders agreed that the priority now must be to identify the source of the EHEC outbreak in order to be able to take further measures to protect the public,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.

Both Berlin and Madrid said that they had agreed to seek compensation at the European level. Farmers in other countries have also complained that they have been affected.

Hungary, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said Friday it aimed to hold an extraordinary meeting of the bloc’s farm ministers to discuss the outbreak, most likely on June 17.

A group of Spanish growers were in Hamburg on Friday to vent their anger over the damage done by the erroneous warning.

“Our reputation is destroyed,” said Antonio Lavao, head of Frunet, a 120-strong firm in Malaga wrongly fingered by authorities in Hamburg.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s national disease centre, still advises consumers, primarily in the north of the country, to avoid cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce.

Russia, meanwhile, has banned vegetable imports from the European Union in response to the scare, earning the ire of the European Commission, which called the move “disproportionate.”

Fernando Valenzuela, the head of an EU delegation to Russia, said the ban went “in the opposition direction” of Moscow’s hopes to join the World Trade Organisation.

Putin said he would check the validity of Moscow’s ban but expressed bewilderment at the idea that the move was against the spirit of WTO membership.

“People really are dying because of eating these products and we cannot let our people get poisoned for the sake of some kind of spirit,” he added.

Lebanon also imposed a ban on Friday on all EU vegetable imports.