Contaminated cucumbers from Spain may have killed 16 people and sickened hundreds of others in Europe in a mysterious bacterial outbreak linked to E. coli -- though authorities are now doubting the cucumbers are the source.
Northwestern Germany has been the hardest-hit region – though hospital officials in Boras, Sweden, announced the death of a woman in her 50s who was admitted on May 29 after a trip to Germany. In Paderborn, Germany, the local council said an 87-year-old woman who also suffered from other ailments had died.
In Germany, the national disease control center said 373 people were sick with the most serious form of the outbreak — hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a rare complication arising from an infection most commonly associated with E. coli. That figure was up from the 329 reported Monday.
Susanne Glasmacher, a spokeswoman for the Robert Koch Institute, said another 796 people have been affected by the enterohaemorrhagic E. coli, also known as EHEC, bacteria — making a total of more than 1,150 people infected.
Hundreds of people also have been sickened in other European countries, but until Tuesday Germany had seen the only deaths.
The same strain of E. coli now in Europe hit the U.S. state of Montana in 1994, leaving 11 people sick, including four who were hospitalized. A year earlier, a related strain of E. coli killed four children in the western United States and sickened about 500 people after they ate contaminated hamburgers at a fast-food chain, Jack in the Box. Unlike those limited outbreaks, however, the European one is much larger, deadlier, and predominantly striking adults.
In Sweden, hospital medical chief Jerker Isacson said Tuesday that the Swedish woman who died had been ill for a few days before she arrived at the hospital on Sunday and died early Tuesday.
"She developed serious complications, among other things on the kidneys," he said.
The Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control on Monday said 39 Swedes have been infected with EHEC so far, including 15 with the severe HUS.
Britt Akerlind, spokeswoman at the institute, said it is unclear why so many Swedes had been infected, but said it could be that efficient reporting mechanism in the Nordic country means more cases have been discovered here.
Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment is still warning consumers to avoid all cucumbers, lettuces and raw tomatoes as the outbreak is investigated. Although the number of officially reported cases has shot up since late last week, regional officials have said this week that they are seeing a sharp drop-off in the number of new cases.
European Union officials have said that German authorities identified cucumbers from the Spanish regions of Almeria and Malaga as possible sources of contamination and that a third suspect batch, originating either in the Netherlands or in Denmark and traded in Germany, is also under investigation.
They have also noted, however, that the transport chain is long, and the cucumbers from Spain could have been contaminated at any point along the route.
Adding to the confusion, authorities in Hamburg, where four suspect cucumbers were found last week — three from Spain — said tests on two of the vegetables had found a different strain of EHEC from the one carried by patients in the city.
"Our hope of discovering the source of the cases of severe complications with HUS unfortunately has not been fulfilled by these first results," said Hamburg state health minister Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks.
However, her ministry stressed that the EHEC contamination of the tested cucumbers still posed a health risk.
The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration said Tuesday that no traces of EHEC bacteria were found in tests conducted over the weekend.
"There is therefore nothing that indicates that Danish cucumbers are the source of the serious E. coli outbreak that has infected several patients in Germany, Denmark and Sweden," the agency said.
In the meantime, Russia's chief sanitary agency on Monday banned the imports of cucumbers, tomatoes and fresh salad from Spain and Germany pending further notice.
It said that it may even ban the imports of fresh vegetables from all European Union member states due to the lack of information about the source of infection.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.