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Ministers and scientists struggle to rein in E.coli crisis

Text by Priscille LAFITTE

Latest update : 2011-06-07

EU ministers have tried to reassure farmers and consumers concerned about the E.coli outbreak that began one week ago but officials have struggled to show signs of progress in identifying the source of the deadly bacteria.

European agriculture ministers held an emergency meeting on Tuesday in Luxembourg to respond to the slump in sales of fruit and vegetables across the region. But a week after the deadly E.coli outbreak was mistakenly attributed to Spanish cucumbers, scientists seem no closer to identifying its source.

As ministers and scientists scramble to deal with the crisis, farmers, vendors and consumers are still in the dark about the origin of the E.coli strain that has killed almost two dozen people in Germany. After cucumbers were falsely blamed, German officials then backpedalled on soybean sprouts on Monday.

"We're totally lost. We will remain so until we have isolated the transmission vehicle of the bacteria,” admitted Patricia Mariani, a microbiologist at the Robert Debre Children's Hospital in Paris and co-director of a national center that monitors E.coli.

The EU Commission tried to reassure citizens on Tuesday. “The epidemic is limited to [Germany’s] Hamburg region, so there is no reason to implement measures at the European level,” health commissioner John Dailli told Europe’s parliament. “We think any ban on any product would be disproportionate.”

"We may never know"

Scientists worry that the window to find the source of the bacteria may be closing fast. “There are so many potential vehicles [for infection] -water, vegetables, meat, milk- that the investigation is very difficult. If the source dries up, we may never know,” Mariani said.

The microbiologist says the original source of the bacteria, a cattle ranch or a restaurant for example, could eradicate any trace of the bacteria the next time it cleans its premises.

On Monday a new victim succumbed to E.coli poisoning in Germany. A 90-year-old woman died as a result of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a severe illness caused by E.coli that can lead to kidney failure.

Germany's national disease control center said on Tuesday that another 94 people had fallen ill, raising the number of infected victims to 2,325 in Germany.

"We have never seen an epidemic of this magnitude, with so many deaths due to HUS. The virulence of the bacteria is unprecedented,” Mariani said.

The handling of the epidemic has become a source of tension in Germany, with often contradictory information coming from regional and federal authorities.

"Last Sunday, the regional minister of agriculture of Lower Saxony claimed to have discovered the source of contamination, without providing proof, while Berlin expressed doubt,” said FRANCE 24’s correspondent Anne Maillet."

The government and regional authorities are also criticized for underestimating the epidemic in its early days and for losing valuable time.

Even the prestigious Robert Koch Institute has been criticized for its lack of communication. Tomorrow, a crisis meeting in Berlin is scheduled to consolidate the information in the different regions.

Date created : 2011-06-07


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