With 11 people dead of infection and 400 cases reported, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said on Sunday that a bacterial outbreak in northern Germany was one of the largest of its kind ever reported worldwide.
The infection, from a strain of Escherichia coli, can lead to kidney failure and death and is difficult to treat with antibiotics, according to the Robert Koch Institute, which is Germany’s disease control authority.
Fifteen other cases have been identified in Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. The patients are German or had visited northern Germany. Agriculture ministers from the EU were scheduled to discuss the issue yesterday when they met in Debrecen, Hungary.
Food safety officials in Austria and the Czech Republic said on Sunday that small numbers of vegetables that had come from Germany were being pulled off the shelves there, the Associated Press reported. The Czechs said cucumbers from a contaminated shipment had also gone to Hungary and Luxembourg.
The infections came from eating raw tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce that were bought in northern Germany. The symptoms include bloody diarrhea and stomach cramps. In most cases, patients recover after about eight days.
Scientists at the Institute for Hygiene and Environment in Hamburg, northern Germany’s major port city and one of Europe’s largest cargo terminals, suggested that the bacteria could have come from Spain.
Hamburg Health Minister Cornelia Pruefer said three out of four cucumbers carrying the strain of the bacteria were from a shipment from Spain that had been sold in supermarkets in Hamburg.
The Robert Koch Institute issued a warning against eating such vegetables.
“As long as the experts in Germany and Spain have not found the definitive source of the bacteria, we have to stick with our warnings against raw vegetables,” German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner said on Sunday in an interview with Bild am Sonntag.
The European disease center, however, said an alternative food item could be the carrier of the infection.
“The definite source of the infection remains to be confirmed,” it said.
The bacterium in question, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, or STEC, can cause severe enteric and systemic disease in humans, including hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, which can lead to kidney failure or death.
“To date, this outbreak is one of the largest described outbreaks of STEC/HUS worldwide and the largest ever reported in Germany,” said the European disease center, which is based in Stockholm.
The first cases in the latest outbreak were reported three weeks ago in Hamburg. On Friday, the European Commission said that two Spanish farms in Malaga and Almeria had been shut down after German experts identified Spanish cucumbers as the source of the E. coli bacteria.
Spain went on the defensive yesterday, saying there was no proof that the E. coli outbreak has been caused by Spanish vegetables.
Spanish Secretary of State for European Affairs Diego Lopez Garrido said Madrid might take action against those pointing fingers at his nation.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AP