- More than 1,800 ill as outbreak spreads across EU
- WHO says E.coli bug is ‘super-toxic’ mutant strain
- Health officials in all U.S states warned to be on lookout for infection
A mutant strain of E.coli from Europe that has struck down three Americans is the ‘deadliest on record,’ according to health officials.
The deadly food bug in Germany has killed more people and resulted in more cases of severe kidney damage than any other on record, according to Robert Tauxe at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (CDC).
Asked if this was the world’s deadliest E.coli outbreak yet, Dr Tauxe said: ‘I believe it is.’
Mystery outbreak: German scientists have still to pinpoint the source of the outbreak after earlier blaming Spanish cucumbers
The three U.S victims had recently travelled to and from northern Germany, the centre of a deadly E.coli outbreak which has so far left 1,800 people ill across the continent.
They are expected to survive but experts warned the bacterium – a unique mutant strain – could soon be exported to the U.S. and passed from person to person as baffled scientists struggle to find its source.
Lola Russell, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would not release the names or locations of the three Americans who have fallen ill.
What is E. coli?
Escherichia coli is a type of bacterium found in the intestines of many animals. Some strains can cause illness in people.
Usually people suffer from diarrhoea which settles within a week. However some strains can cause serious kidney and blood complications, such as haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS).
What is HUS?
It is a serious disorder that usually occurs when an infection, usually E. coli, in the digestive system produces toxic substances that can get into the blood stream and cause kidney disease.
Bloody diarrhoea is often an early symptom.
It is most common in children and the elderly.
Most (98 per cent) people recover but treatment may include dialysis and blood transfusions.
Where do the E.coli bacteria come from?
Most people carry harmless strains of E. coli in their intestine. Both these and the strains that cause diarrhoea come from contaminated food or water. It can also be passed from animals to people and person-to-person through hand to mouth.
What has caused the outbreak in Germany?
The World Health Organisation said it is a new mutant strain that has never been seen before.
It is not known how salad produce came to be contaminated in the outbreak in Germany.
How do you stop it spreading?
Good hygiene is very important in preventing person-to person spread and small children should be supervised with hand washing after using the toilet and before eating.
It is always advisable to wash fruits and vegetables before you eat them. Peeling or cooking fruit and vegetables can also remove germs.
The CDC has notified public health officials in all U.S states to be on the lookout for the infection. The Pentagon has also been notified about the outbreak because of the presence of U.S military bases in Germany. So far there have been no reported cases among military personnel.
Scientists revealed today the outbreak is an ‘entirely new super-toxic’ strain of E.coli which is contagious and resistant to antibiotics.
Infection is especially common among women, who have accounted for at least 13 of the 18 deaths.
E.coli can be contagious and is spread person to person when infected people fail to take proper hygiene measures, such as washing their hands.
The bacterium responsible for the current outbreak is a completely new strain and carries genes that make it resistant to many common antibiotics. It produces powerful toxins which can cause kidney failure.
Health officials said the ‘unique’ strain had ‘characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing’, and therefore more dangerous.
They said that the bacteria combines a highly poisonous but common toxin with a rarely seen ‘glue’ that binds it to a patient’s intestines.
Hundreds have fallen ill in recent days in Germany, which is at the centre of the E.coli outbreak.
There have been 13 official reported deaths in Germany and one death in Sweden, while infections have also been reported in the UK, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
Of the UK cases, three are British residents who recently travelled to Germany, while four are Germans who were visiting England when they became ill.
Three of them have developed the potentially deadly complication of haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS).
Dr Tauxe said the German case was 10 times larger than the largest outbreak in the U.S.
Early investigations suggest the bacterium is a new mutant strain of E.coli.
Hilde Kruse, a food safety expert at the World Health Organisation, said: ‘This is a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before.’
She said the new strain had ‘various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing’.
Initial reports from Germany linked the outbreak to E.coli contamination of organic cucumbers imported from Spain.
Victim: A patient infected with EHEC lies in his bed in an isolation area at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany
As a result, Spain stopped exports and destroyed thousands of tons of cucumbers.
But the Germans have now admitted they were wrong and officials are making desperate efforts to establish the source.
Although experts say the main source has been contaminated food, they don’t know what food is causing the outbreak.
The bug can also be spread by coming into contact with those who are ill.
Rolf Stahl, a kidney specialist treating victims in Hamburg, said: ‘The situation is deteriorating dramatically for our patients, and the worst thing is that we don’t know what’s causing it.’
Although the risk of contamination is low in the U.S., because it imports little fresh produce from Europe, Dr. William Schaffner, of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told ABC News: ‘Bacteria do not need a passport.
He added: ‘There already have been a couple of cases in the U.S. The patients had traveled to Hamburg, returned to the U.S. where they became ill.
‘This could happen again and the E. coli could be transmitted to family, friends and others in the U.S.’
Russia today banned all vegetable imports from the EU in an attempt to prevent the outbreak from crossing its borders.
Lyubov Voropayeva, from the Russian Agency for the Supervision of Consumer Rights, said that the ban has been imposed immediately for no definite period of time.
Health experts in the UK have warned families to wash their salads thoroughly, and its Health Protection Agency said people travelling to Germany should avoid eating raw tomatoes, cucumbers and leafy salad until further notice.
A leading EU scientist warned yesterday that the outbreak is on a scale never seen before in Europe.
Denis Coulombier, head of surveillance and response for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said experts are shocked at the number of cases, which point to a ‘huge contamination’ probably of vegetables, at some point in the food chain.
That contamination could have happened ‘anywhere from the farm to the fork,’ he said, and it is now down to food safety authorities in Germany to pinpoint where as quickly as possible.
‘It’s certainly something we haven’t seen before in the EU and probably in the world,’ he said.
‘Such a large outbreak with so many severe cases has never been seen in the past.’
Spreading: Scientists prepare a red pepper for E.coli testing , in Brno, Czech Republic. It is the latest European country to report an outbreak
E.coli contamination is normally associated with animal and human faeces, which may have contaminated the water used to irrigate crops in Spain.
One other possibility is that the produce could have been washed with contaminated water at same point between leaving the fields and glasshouses and reaching stores.
Normally, E.coli poisoning would lead to a stomach upset, but some rare strains can trigger potentially fatal complications.
More than 350 people so far have been struck down by hemolytic-uremic syndrome in which the E.coli infection attacks the kidneys. HUS affects the blood, kidneys and, in severe cases, the central nervous system.
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