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Virulent new strain of <i>E. coli</i> found in deadly European outbreak

A deadly outbreak of food-borne illness in Europe is being caused by an unusually virulent strain of E. coli that scientists haven’t seen before and that may be dramatically more dangerous, global health officials said Thursday.

The new strain has killed at least 17 people in Germany and Sweden and sickened 1,614 in 10 countries in Europe, the World Health Organization said.

Unlike typical forms of the bacterium, which can cause severe diarrhea, this strain in many cases is resulting in a more severe reaction known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. The syndrome occurs when toxins released by the bacteria destroy blood cells, which then clog the kidneys, leading to kidney failure. The damaged cells can also cause seizures and strokes.

“That is an incredibly high incidence of systemic disease,” said E. coli expert Arthur Donohue-Rolfe, who chairs the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

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The outbreak has prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to step up monitoring of fresh produce from Western Europe, which German officials have identified as the likely cause of the outbreak.

“We have flags in place that will let us know about those products and we will pull those products,” said Dara A. Corrigan, the FDA Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs. “They will be stopped, they will be sampled. And they will be analyzed.”

Corrigan said none of the suspected foods — which include fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce from Spain and Germany — have come into the United States since the problem was reported. The FDA is also monitoring fresh produce from Britain, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, where cases have also been reported.

The U.S. national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also is monitoring the outbreak, which has sickened at least two Americans who travelled recently to northern Germany, the epicenter of the disease.

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Scientists said that these kinds of food-borne illnesses, which arise when bacteria in animal fecal matter contaminate food, are not typically transmitted from person to person.

Although food-borne illnesses generally are most dangerous to the elderly and the young, in this outbreak the majority of patients who have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome have been adult women, for reasons that are unclear.

The Beijing Genomics Institute, which has been working with German authorities to sequence the new strain, reported that it is resistant to several antibiotics. E. coli infections are not typically treated with antibiotics because they can exacerbate symptoms.

The vast majority of patients are in Germany, and nearly all those outside Germany had recently traveled to the northern part of the country or come into contact with someone who had, the World Health Organization said.

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After Germany, Sweden has been hardest hit, with at least one dead and 43 people infected.

German health officials believe that the E. coli contamination has affected tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers, and have warned residents not to eat those vegetables raw.

The mounting infection toll and the failure to pinpoint its source have sparked a war of words between Germany and Spain and hurt farmers in several European countries.

With no reported infections yet, Russia announced Thursday that it was banning all fresh produce from the European Union, widening an embargo that began with Spain and Germany. EU officials criticized the ban as excessive. The United Arab Emirates is also temporarily blocking imports of cucumbers from some European countries.

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Tension rose between Madrid and Berlin after German health officials wrongly pointed to Spanish cucumbers as the outbreak’s source. Germany later withdrew the claim, saying that although some Spanish cucumbers had E. coli on them, it was a different strain.

Spanish farmers have lost an estimated $300 million, having been forced to dump tons of their harvest because of Germany’s accusations.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero added his voice to the chorus of Spanish officials demanding that Germany pay damages, telling Spanish radio that his government would seek “conclusive explanations and sufficient reparations” from Germany.

Identifying the source of food-borne illnesses can be challenging, experts say. E. coli outbreaks associated with salad vegetables are particularly troubling because the items aren’t usually cooked before consumption, said University of Massachusetts food microbiologist Lynne A. McLandsborough.

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Randy Worobo, a food microbiologist at Cornell University, said the U.S. has effective methods for containing the spread of illnesses like E. coli.

“We have a good monitoring system with the CDC and public health system,” he said. “We track food-borne outbreaks and we can identify the source.”

henry.chu@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com

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Levey reported from Washington and Chu from London. Times staff writer Shari Roan in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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