Home News Overuse of antibiotics made Germany’s E. coli bug deadly

Overuse of antibiotics made Germany’s E. coli bug deadly

Published on 24/06/2011

After several frantic weeks of searching, German authorities identified the contamination source as being vegetable sprouts from an organic farm in Lower Saxony, northern Germany. The farm, which had not breached any production standards, has since been shut down and all products recalled.

This deadly strain of E. coli bacteria is a genetic mix whose ability to stick to intestinal walls may have made it so lethal, reports a study in The Lancet this month.

A team led by Helge Karch, a professor at the University of Muenster, said the Escherichia coli germ O104:H4 was a rare kind that in essence was a "clone" of a strain first detected in a young patient in Germany in 2001.

What is different from the 2001 germ, it added, are genes that make it resistant to members of a broad class of antibiotics called beta-lactams.

The germ was resistant to all penicillins and cephalosporins, but susceptible to carbapenems.

This blending of traits could explain the exceptional virulence of the strain and suggests beta-lactams may have inadvertently made things worse by wiping out rivals to the germ, says the study.

Nearly a quarter of those infected in the outbreak have developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), which includes kidney impairment, a breakdown of red blood cells and lack of blood-clotting components called platelets.
As of June 20, there have been 810 cases of HUS and 2,684 non-HUS cases, entailing bloody diarrhoea

Dr. Ulrike Sucher, Medical Director, Allianz Worldwide Care strongly agrees with media opinion that the vast overuse of antibiotics is to blame for what has happened.

"This outbreak highlights the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics as the main source of a number of problems, not only the emergence of the EHEC bacterium but also the multi-resistant bacteria in hospitals," says Dr. Sucher. "The more antibiotics prescribed, the bigger the chance that one specific strain will gain the ability to survive it. And then this strain will pass this genetic information to bacteria that would normally be responsive to the antibiotic."

While there is no reason for panic, until the outbreak is over Dr. Sucher advises observing strict hygienic measures before consuming vegetables.  "The EHEC bacterium is sensitive to heat, and strange as it may sound, to soap. So to kill the bacteria, vegetables should either be cooked or washed with soap in very hot water above 70 degrees Celsius."

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s national disease agency, still recommends not eating raw vegetable sprouts.  Because seeds could also be contaminated, BfR (Federal Institute for Risk Assessment) President Professor Dr. Andreas Hensel aslso recommends refraining from "consuming home-grown raw sprouts for the time being."

Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment said the outbreak is the most serious of its kind recorded in the world to date.

 AFP/ Expatica/  Allianz Worldwide Care