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Deadly disease linked to contaminated cucumbers spreads from Germany

Source of virulent strain of E coli bacterium is unknown, with pathogen identified on cucumbers imported from Spain but no proof if they were contaminated in Spain, during transport or in Germany.

A man selects a cucumber at a vegetable stall. A virulent form of the E coli bacterium blamed on infected cucumbers from Spain has killed 11 people in Germany, while 300 more fell sick. Herwig Prammer / Reuters
A man selects a cucumber at a vegetable stall. A virulent form of the E coli bacterium blamed on infected cucumbers from Spain has killed 11 people in Germany, while 300 more fell sick. Herwig Prammer / Reuters

BERLIN // An E coli outbreak that has killed 11 people and made more than 300 seriously ill in Germany has spread to other north European countries and is expected to worsen in the coming week.

Oliver Grieve, spokesman for the University Medical Centre Schleswig-Holstein in north Germany, where many of those afflicted are being treated, said: "We hope that the number of cases will go down but we fear that it will worsen."

The source of the virulent strain of the bacterium is unknown, German authorities said yesterday before a crisis meeting of federal and state officials in Berlin. Most of the deaths have been in northern Germany.

The E coli pathogen has been identified on cucumbers imported from Spain but it is unclear if they were contaminated there, during transport or in Germany.

There are 36 cases of suspected E coli in Sweden, all linked to travel in northern Germany, authorities said. A small number of cases have been reported in Britain, Denmark, France and the Netherlands, all linked with travel to Germany.

The German government has identified the pathogen as hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious complication of a type of E coli known as Shiga toxin-producing E coli (STEC), and said it had killed 11 people and made at least 329 ill.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said in a risk assessment that the HUS/STEC outbreak is the largest ever in the world of its kind.

HUS affects the blood, kidneys and, in severe cases, the nervous system and can be particularly serious for children and the elderly. Some 60 cases of HUS are reported annually in Germany, the government said.

Mr Grieve said his hospital had 82 cases of HUS and 115 confirmed E coli cases, and said the number of cases there had doubled within the past few days.

The northern port city of Hamburg alone has reported 488 cases of E coli since the outbreak began in mid-May and has 94 cases of HUS.

A hospital in the city said it was transferring patients with less serious illnesses to other clinics to cope with the flood of HUS patients.

German authorities have warned consumers to avoid eating cucumbers, lettuces and tomatoes and have ordered some products removed from store shelves.

The German consumer protection minister Ilse Aigner said yesterday: "As long as the experts in Germany and Spain have not been able to name the source of the agent without any doubt, the general warning for vegetables still holds."

Authorities in Sweden have warned Swedes travelling to north Germany to steer clear of cucumbers, tomatoes and salad.

Austria's food safety agency ordered a recall of organically grown cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant supplied by a Spanish producer thought to be the source of the outbreak. It said 33 Austrian stores were affected.

A health ministry spokesman, Fabian Fusseis, said: "If anything is found to be left over, it will be tested and taken off the market."

Britain's Health Protection Agency, meanwhile, said England so far has seen three cases of E coli in German nationals, two with HUS. The Food Standards Agency said there was no evidence any of the affected organic cucumbers have been distributed to the UK but it was monitoring the situation closely.

A spokesman for the European Union said Sunday that two greenhouses in Spain that were identified as the source of the contaminated cucumbers had ceased activities. The water and soil there are being analysed to see whether they were the problem or the contamination occurred elsewhere, the spokesman said. The results of the tests are expected Tuesday or Wednesday, he said.

* Reuters with additional reporting by the Associated Press