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17 e.coli deaths - but Spain not to blame

Thu 2th Jun 2011

Yesterday, as the death toll rose to 17, officials reported that the number of those infected with the e.coli strain is around 30% higher than previously thought.

Europe's medical authorities appeared no closer to discovering either the source of the infection or the mystery at the heart of the outbreak: why this strain of the E. coli bacteria is causing so many complications - notably cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome - which attacks the kidneys and can cause seizures, strokes and comas.

Germany's national health agency reported that 1,534 people in the country have now been infected by EHEC, a particularly deadly strain of the common bacteria found in the digestive systems of cows, humans and other mammals.

There have been reports of cases in 9 other European countries so far, however almost all of those infected had recently travelled to Germany.

The Robert Koch Institute said 470 people in Germany were suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome, a number that is unheard of in modern medical history. HUS usually occurs in just 10% of EHEC infections, meaning the number seen in Germany would normally be expected in an outbreak three times the size being currently reported. However, that could be explained by many cases being as yet unreported, or because those infected are otherwise healthy and the symptoms fairly mild.

An other theory being put forward is that the strain of EHEC causing the complications could be more dangerous. There are hundreds of different E. coli strains in the environment, many occurring naturally in healthy humans, but only a small percentage are dangerous.

The German authorities have now completely ruled out their original accusation - that the source of the infection came from cucumbers imported from Spain - as test revealed that the strain found on the cucumbers tested was neither dangerous, nor the same strain that had caused the outbreak.

However, Germany's premature blame set the wheels in motion that caused a number of other European countries to place a ban on all imported fresh produce from Spain - a move that has reportedly cost the country in excess of 200 Million Euros and 500 jobs so far. Even though Germany has retracted the blame, and tests have exonerated Spain, many import bans are still in place.

Two question still hang in the air : If not Spanish cucumbers, the what exactly is the cause of the infection, and more pressingly for Spain, how does Germany intend to compensate Spain for the totally unfounded accusation that has caused such damage to the already fragile economy ?

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