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Jun 3, 2011
Deadly E. coli is entirely new strain
European officials say they may never know its source
Goats eating discarded cucumbers at a farm in Algarrobo, Spain on Wednesday. Russia has banned imports of vegetables from all 27 EU member states. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
LONDON: The World Health Organisation said yesterday that the E. coli bacterium sweeping through Europe is a deadly new strain that has never been seen before, and European health officials say they may never know where it came from.
Preliminary testing suggests that the strain is a mutant form of two different E. coli bacteria, with aggressive genes. That could explain why the Europe-wide outbreak appears to be so massive and dangerous, the WHO said.
Yesterday, Britain reported that the mysterious lethal bacterium had reached its shores.
WHO food safety expert Hilde Kruse said 'this is a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before'.
She said the new strain has 'various characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing' than the many E. coli strains people naturally carry in their intestines.
So far, the mutant E. coli strain has sickened more than 1,500 people, including 470 who have developed a rare kidney failure complication, and killed 18, including one overnight in Germany, the country hit hardest by the outbreak.
Researchers have been unable to pinpoint the source of the illness, which has hit at least nine European countries, and prompted Russia yesterday to extend a ban on vegetable imports to include the entire European Union.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control pinpointed the 'causative agent' as a strain of bacteria called Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, or STEC.
It confirmed its previous suspicions that STEC, which it said had occurred only rarely worldwide, was responsible for the killer outbreak.
The agency reiterated that contaminated food 'seems the most likely vehicle of infection' but stressed the source was still under investigation.
Indeed, it is a sad fact of life in food poisoning cases: There often is no smoking gun.
'They might never find the cause of the outbreak,' said health protection professor Paul Hunter at England's University of East Anglia. 'In most foodborne outbreaks, we don't know definitively where the contaminated food came from.'
Chinese scientists who analysed the bacterium said it carries genes making it resistant to several classes of antibiotics.
'This E. coli is a new strain of bacteria that is highly infectious and toxic,' said the scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen city in southern China, who are collaborating with colleagues in Germany.
Nearly all the sick people either live in Germany or recently travelled there. Two people who were sickened are now in the United States, and both had recently travelled to Hamburg, where many of the infections occurred.
In London, the health authorities said yesterday that seven people in Britain have been infected, with all cases linked to Germany.
Three of those infected were British nationals who had recently travelled to Germany, and four were German nationals, the Health Protection Agency said in a statement.
Of those cases, three had full-blown haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS) - a disease that can cause serious liver damage - and the other four suffered bloody diarrhoea, it said.
Russia yesterday infuriated the EU by banning fresh vegetable imports from all its 27 member states. The sanction was immediately denounced as 'disproportionate' by a European Commission spokesman, who said Brussels would demand an official explanation from Moscow.
The outbreak is already considered the third-largest involving E. coli in recent world history, and it may be the deadliest. Twelve people died in a 1996 Japanese outbreak that reportedly sickened more than 9,000, and seven died in a 2000 Canadian outbreak.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, ASSOCIATED PRESS
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