Two different strands of E coli
The source of an alarming E coli outbreak in Europe that has so far
left 26 dead and more than 2,600 sick has baffled experts who warn the
outbreak is more severe than anything they’ve ever seen from the
bacteria. The strain has hit eight countries in Europe, but has been
concentrated in Germany.
E coli is a common type of bacteria that can get into food, like beef
and vegetables. E coli is short for the medical term Escherichia coli.
The strange thing about these bacteria is that they are not always
harmful to humans. E coli normally lives inside intestines, where it
helps the body to break down and digest food. Unfortunately, certain
strains of E coli can get from the intestines into the blood. This is a
rare illness, but it can cause a very serious infection.
The E coli bacterial virus
Despite a massive medical dragnet, the culprit for the outbreak has
not yet been determined. The initial suspect was cucumbers from Spain,
but tests have discounted that the vegetable was responsible for
carrying the bacteria. Tomatoes and lettuce are also being tested.
Most E Coli strains are harmless, but those that do cause sickness
usually trigger bouts of diarrhoea, fever and vomiting. In the
bacteria’s most serious and severe form, the infection causes haemolytic
uremic syndrome, or HUS, a condition which attacks the kidneys and can
cause stroke, seizure, coma and death.
In a typical outbreak, about one to two percent of those affected
suffer from HUS. Minnesota University Centre for Infectious Disease
Research and Policy Director, Dr Michael Osterholm said that it will be
important to decipher whether there is something unusual about this
particular agent which is causing a higher percentage of people to
suffer from HUS or the outbreak is just extremely widespread.
German hospitals are struggling to cope with the surge in patients
caused by the E coli outbreak. Health minister, Daniel Bahr, said
hospitals in northern Germany were finding it difficult to provide
enough beds and treatment for patients. “We are facing a tense situation
with patient care,” Bahr said, “but we will manage it.”
Agriculture officials said that bean sprouts grown in one organic
farm between Hamburg and Hanover were the likely cause of the illness.
Hospital authorities said blood supplies were running low and staff was
exhausted, working round-the-clock, with the northern cities of Hamburg
and Bremen the worst affected. Patients with less serious illnesses are
now being moved to nearby hospitals and operations for non-threatening
diseases are being postponed.
Tucked away in the cellars of the city’s old town, the Kartoffel
Keller became the focus of investigations over the weekend after a local
newspaper revealed that up to 17 people who had eaten at the restaurant
were infected with E coli, among them tourists from Denmark and a group
of German civil servants. Two are seriously ill and a 47-year-old woman
Two cases have surfaced in the United States, said Lola Russell, a
spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Russell
did not disclose the victims’ names or states where they reside, but she
did say their illnesses are associated with recent travel to Germany.
Both are expected to survive.
“This strain of E Coli seems to be particularly virulent and also
antibiotic resistant,” said University of Washington School of Public
Health professor of epidemiology and health sciences Dr Ann Marie
Kimball. “It is a toxin producing strain which causes kidney shut down
and apparently higher mortality.”
A Virginia two-year-old who died from an E coli bacterial infection
that has also sickened her brother, as well as at least 10 other E coli
infections in Tennessee since June 1, are unrelated to the infections in
Germany, said health officials. Northeast Regional Health Office,
Johnson City, Tennessee medical director Dr David Kirschke said the
office is “taking it very seriously and encouraging people to follow
Based on lab results from June 2 and 3, Kirschke said, “It looks like
we may be dealing with two separate strains. What looks like is seven
cases that are not related to the 0157 strain that are probably a milder
strain, and one case of the 0157 that can have more severe
Kirschke said a common cause has not been found. He said, however,
that the lab results did not indicate a link to the E coli outbreak in