E COLI OUTBREAK CAUSED BY NEW STRAIN: WHO

04:47 AM Jun 03, 2011
LONDON – The E coli bacteria responsible for a deadly outbreak that has left 18 dead and hundreds ill in Europe – with Britain the latest to be hit – is a new strain that has never been seen before, the World Health Organization (WHO) said yesterday.

Preliminary genetic sequencing suggests 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 agency said.

Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) has asked all doctors and hospitals to be vigilant and to notify the MOH immediately of any suspected cases of E coli infection linked to the outbreak in Germany.

In the United Kingdom, three British nationals have been infected as well as four Germans, according to the UK Health Protection Agency. All seven are believed to have caught it in Germany and three of them are believed to have developed haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), a rare and severe kidney complication that destroys red blood cells and can affect the central nervous system.

Health experts in Germany warned it may be weeks or months before the outbreak ends, as others in the rest of Europe noted that, as with other food poisoning cases, there often is no smoking gun.

“They might never find the cause of the outbreak,” said Mr Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at England’s University of East Anglia. “In most foodborne outbreaks, we don’t know definitively where the contaminated food came from.”

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So far, the mutant E coli strain has left more than 1,600 people ill, including 470 who have developed HUS. Eighteen have died, mostly in Germany, the country hit hardest by the outbreak.

The WHO said it had been notified of cases in Austria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. European Union officials said three cases of E coli have also been reported in the United States.

“This is a unique strain that has never been isolated from patients before,” said Ms Hilde Kruse, a food safety expert at the WHO. She added that 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.

Chinese scientists, who analysed the organism, also agreed that the E coli outbreak is caused by a new, highly infectious and toxic strain of bacteria that carries genes which make it resistant to a few classes of antibiotics.

The scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute, who are collaborating with Germany’s University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, said yesterday that the bacterium was closely related to another E coli strain, called EAEC 55989, which was previously isolated in central Africa. The strain is known to cause serious diarrhoea.

Mr Hunter said the fact that the strain is new may have complicated the response to the outbreak. “Officials may not have had the correct tests to detect it, which may explain the initial delay in reporting,” he added.

Mr Hunter warned the outbreak could continue if there is secondary transmission of the disease, which often happens when children are infected.

Previous E coli outbreaks have mainly hit children and the elderly but the European outbreak is disproportionately affecting adults, especially women.

Ms Kruse said there might be something particular about the bacteria strain that makes it more dangerous for adults. But she warned that, since people with milder cases probably are not seeking medical help, officials do not know just how big the outbreak is.

German officials have warned people not to eat lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.

The WHO recommends people wash their hands before eating or cooking food, separating raw and cooked meat from other foods, thoroughly cooking food and washing fruits and vegetables, especially if eaten raw. Experts also recommend peeling raw fruits and vegetables if possible.

Fearful of the outbreak spreading into Russia, the country yesterday extended its ban on vegetable imports to all of the EU. The United Arab Emirates issued a temporary ban on cucumbers from Spain, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Agencies

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