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Backlash hits German government over handling of deadly E coli outbreak

Critics say key problem is that no central authority has taken overall charge of handling the crisis, because of a mixture of bureaucratic confusion over responsibilities and Germany's regionally fragmented health system.

Staff of Berlin's Robert Koch Institute wear protective gear as they investigate an organic farm that had been identified as a possible source of the deadly outbreak of E coli. Odd Andersen / AFP Photo
Staff of Berlin's Robert Koch Institute wear protective gear as they investigate an organic farm that had been identified as a possible source of the deadly outbreak of E coli. Odd Andersen / AFP Photo

BERLIN // The German government is facing accusations from opposition politicians and health experts that it has mishandled the deadly E coli outbreak that has claimed at least 22 lives over the past month.

Renate Künast, the parliamentary group leader of the opposition Greens party, said in an interview published on Monday in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper: "There is no crisis management whatsoever. I ask myself what the health minister and consumer protection minister are actually doing,"

Sales of fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes and lettuce, have collapsed, farmers are demanding compensation and public alarm is growing at what is increasingly being perceived as a chaotic response to the epidemic.

Hospitals in northern Germany, where the outbreak originated, have been overwhelmed by the number of patients and are running out of blood supplies. There is also a shortage of dialysis machines.

Critics say a key problem is that no central authority has taken overall charge of handling the crisis, because of a mixture of bureaucratic confusion over responsibilities and Germany's regionally fragmented health system, the result of its federal structure, with 16 powerful regional states.

For example, the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's national disease control and prevention agency, has no powers to interview patients itself: that is up to regional health authorities. This has slowed down the flow of key information, experts say.

The sluggish response, coupled with the fact that it takes up to 10 days after infection for the disease to show symptoms, could explain why the source has not been found yet. In fact, scientists are warning that it may never be located because the contaminated food may all have been consumed.

The German epidemic response system is slower than other developed nations such as the United States and Japan that have set up early warning mechanisms to help speed up the response to outbreaks such as E coli infections.

The public uncertainty has been compounded by unco-ordinated public announcements made by regional and national authorities. There is no telephone hotline.

Even within the national government, the division of responsibilities is obscure. It is unclear whether the health minister, Daniel Bahr, or the consumer affairs minister, Ilse Aigner, is in charge of handling the outbreak.

Hopes that the source had been found were dashed on Monday as health officials failed to find evidence that bean sprouts from an organic farm in Bienenbuettel in northern Germany caused the epidemic. They found no trace of EHEC, the dangerous strain of the bacterium, which has infected more than 2,300 people in 12 countries.

All the victims had been travelling in northern Germany. Many have developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a potentially fatal complication that can lead to lasting kidney damage.

The regional government of the northern state of Lower Saxony insisted yesterday that bean sprouts remained the possible cause, while Ms Aigner reiterated that tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce should also be avoided.

The medical director of Berlin's Charité University Hospital, Ulrich Frei, criticized the Robert Koch Institute, saying it had only been issued with questionnaires for its EHEC patients last week, even though the outbreak began in early May.

"That's not enough," Dr Frei told Tagesspiegel, a local newspaper. "They should have interviewed the patients. We need a better information policy."

The initial warning by German authorities that Spanish cucumbers might be to blame was withdrawn after laboratory tests refuted the theory, but the accusation has enraged Spanish farmers who have suffered hundreds of millions of euros in damage through lost sales.

It emerged on Monday that the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, another authority whose exact responsibilities in the current outbreak are unclear, had warned as recently as early May that bean sprouts were a notorious source of contamination with E coli and other pathogens.

"So why didn't the alarm bells go off when EHEC patients in northern Germany reported having eaten a lot of raw produce and salad?" wrote Die Welt, a leading national newspaper, in an editorial on Tuesday. "There appears to be a lack of co-ordination between the national government and the regional states, between national institutes and ministries."

There are growing demands for Germany to revamp its crisis response system, but Ms Aigner said now was not the time to talk about structures.

"We're all working together in this situation. There is no wrangling over responsibilities, none at all," she told Germany's ARD television network on Monday night. "The authorities are working around the clock."

However, Franz-Josef Holzenkamp, an expert on farming in the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, conceded that changes may need to be made.

"The real responsibility in our republic lies with the regional states which are autonomous and in charge here," he told the Deutschlandfunk national radio station on Tuesday. "After the crisis we should maybe look closely at what mistakes may have been made, and correct them."

EU farm ministers met in Luxembourg yesterday to discuss financial aid to fruit and vegetable producers hit by the E. coli crisis. The European commissioner for agriculture, Dacian Ciolos, said the EU would propose offering at least €150 million (Dh807m) in compensation to farmers.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae