Death toll from e.coli epidemic reaches 14 and could rise further


THE DEATH toll from Germany’s e.coli epidemic has reached a reported 14 cases and is likely to rise further, according to health authorities.

More than 300 people are seriously ill as the outbreak continues to spread across Europe, with some 32 confirmed cases in Sweden and Denmark.

After the first cases in Hamburg, the outbreak has remained centred in the northern German region. Investigators suspect, but have as yet no proof, that the epidemic originated with vegetables contaminated with the enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) bacterium.

German health minister Daniel Bahr said yesterday that avoiding raw vegetables and observing good hygiene were the best ways to avoid infection. “Unfortunately an increasing number of cases are to be expected,” he said at a press conference after a crisis meeting in Berlin.

Originating in cattle and other ruminants, EHEC can spread through faecal contamination of food and water as well as contact with animals. The bacterium causes the haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) in humans, attacking the nervous system and causing potentially fatal kidney failure. On contact with humans, the bacterium generates toxins, causing EHEC. Symptoms of the disease include mild fever, bloody diarrhoea and vomiting.

The Robert Koch Institute for infectious disease control has confirmed three deaths in Germany from EHEC infection; the bacterium was the suspected cause of death in the remaining 11 fatalities. “A large number of patients are at serious risk and further deaths cannot be ruled out,” said Reinhard Burger, RKI president. “This (epidemic) will roll on.”

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that the HUS outbreak was the largest in the world of its kind.

Doctors in Hamburg, where over 80 patients are being treated, reported some success yesterday with a new therapy using an antibody called Eculizumab.

“We’ve been treating 18 patients for five days with the antibody,” said Dr Hermann Haller. “Some are responding very quickly, some middling and some not at all, so it is not a breakthrough but offers a new chance.”

The antibody therapy is still at an experimental stage and as yet is not intended for use fighting HUS. Marketed under the brand name Soliris, each dose of the antibody costs several thousand euro.

As the epidemic spread yesterday, so too did fears about infection. Austrian and Czech supermarkets have removed Spanish vegetables from their shelves. Russia yesterday announced it was suspending vegetable imports from Germany and Spain.