World

Germany forms task force, steps up hunt for deadly E. coli source

BERLIN/LONDON: Racing to curb the spread of a killer food bug, Germany set up a national task force Friday to hunt down the source of a highly toxic strain of E. coli that has killed 17 people and sounded alarms around the world.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, engaged in a trade row with the European Union after Moscow banned imports of raw fruit and vegetables from the bloc, heightened the drama by saying he would not “poison” Russians by lifting the embargo.

Repeating warnings to Germans not eat salad vegetables – rattling farmers and stores just as they hit high season – health officials said they recorded 199 new cases of the rare, highly toxic strain of the infection in the past two days.

That took the total of those infected since it was detected in early May to 1,733 – making it possibly the deadliest ever outbreak – and suggesting it was spreading as fast as ever.

Scientists struggled to pinpoint the contamination, assumed to be poor hygiene at a farm, in transit, a shop or food outlet.

Health institutes across Europe have tried to reassure the public by stressing that E. coli, a frequent cause of food poisoning, can generally be tackled by washing vegetables and by washing hands before eating to reduce the risk of bacteria being passed on from the feces of an infected person.

The resistance of the strain to some antibiotics and the failure to find the source of the outbreak, made harder by the nature of salads to include a variety of produce from different producers, has raised concerns, however.

Responding to EU calls that Russia lift Thursday’s ban on imports and respect the principle of free trade, Putin said: “We cannot poison our people for the sake of some spirit.”

The World Health Organization said the strain was a rare one, seen in humans before, but never in this kind of outbreak.

A government spokesman said Chancellor Angela Merkel was setting up an E. coli task force and has talked to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez-Zapatero about the impact on Spanish farmers, who were initially blamed for contamination.

The outbreak has put strains on trade relations, with Russia drawing EU criticism after banning raw vegetable imports from Europe and accusing Brussels of failing to handle the crisis.

Spanish officials have said they might seek compensation from Germany after German officials went back on initial reports that the source might be cucumbers imported from Spain.

Robert Tauxe of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has been working with German health officials since last week, said the strain was likely the most deadly yet in terms of the number of deaths recorded.

“I believe it is,” he told Reuters. He said it was unclear how the bacteria became so resistant.

The European Union’s envoy to Moscow said Russia’s ban was unjustified and contradicted World Trade Organization rules.

Fernando Valenzuela repeated the call from the 27-nation bloc for the lifting of the ban, saying he hoped the situation would be “resolved” within days.

Valenzuela expressed surprise that Russia would impose a ban, the breadth of which he said goes against WTO rules at a time when Moscow is pressing to join the world trade body.

EU countries exported 594 million euros ($853 million) worth of vegetables to Russia last year while EU imports of vegetables from Russia were just 29 million euros, European Union data show.

The outbreak is causing bad infections and, in a number of cases, complications affecting blood and kidneys. Hemolytic uremic syndrome, which frequently leads to kidney failure and can kill, has been diagnosed in hundreds of the cases.

E. coli infections can spread from person to person but only by what is known as the fecal-oral route.

“I wash and wash and wash my vegetables. You can’t stop eating them but I have children and so I’m buying only safe produce and cooking them,” said Max Fehrer, a 43-year-old computer programmer who was shopping in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood on his way to work Friday.

The strain is part of a class of bacteria known as Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli or STEC that produces a poison known as the shiga toxin.

“The immediate public health problem is the identification of the source of infection so that it can be controlled,” said Robert Hall, an expert on communicable disease control in Victoria, Australia.

He explained that this is done by conducting a combination of epidemiological, microbiological and environmental investigations.

“These are all highly skilled tasks that need to be done rapidly and are nearly always done in a glare of publicity,” he said.

In Moscow, shops prepared to dump EU vegetables and consumers expressed a mixture of scorn and pride at the ban. But some disagreed strongly, saying the threat was exaggerated.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 04, 2011, on page 10.

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