Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Travel Alert E. coli

June 8 (Bloomberg) -- Germany's top health official said the deadly E. coli outbreak appeared to be waning as local authorities defended their handling of the crisis.

At least 2,743 people have been stricken by E. coli since May 2, up from 2,429 yesterday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said today. The bacteria have caused 25 deaths, an increase of 2 from yesterday, the Stockholm-based agency said.

The outbreak's cause may never be found, Health Minister Daniel Bahr said at a news conference. The Robert Koch Institute, Germany's disease-control agency, reiterated that people shouldn't eat lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and salad ingredients such as vegetable sprouts.

"It's not the time yet to sound the all-clear, but after the analysis of figures and data at the Robert Koch Institute there's reason for justified optimism that the worst is behind us," Bahr said in Berlin today.

German officials have been struggling to pin down the source of the infections for several weeks, and have come under fire for delays as well as twice pointing to a cause for the outbreak too hastily.

The country's decentralized federal system may have compounded a lack of leadership and prevented a speedy response to the crisis, according to Baerbel Hoehn of the Green Party.

'More Confusion'

"To get to the root of all this, the German agriculture minister must say 'I'll take charge, I'll coordinate everything," Hoehn said today on N24 television. "Instead, too many people with new ideas are constantly coming to the fore, which only serves to create more confusion."

Germany may review its response after the outbreak to determine what could be improved, though there's no need to change the structure of the system, Stefan Gruettner, social minister of the state of Hesse and chairman of a meeting of health ministers from the country's 16 states, said in an interview today.

"We don't need centralism," Gruettner said. "Everything went well."

Germany initially blamed Spanish cucumbers, and on June 5 officials said sprouts from an organic farm played a role in the outbreak. Tests from the farm in Lower Saxony state have showed no evidence of the bacteria.

Disease Clusters

There are eight E. coli clusters linked to the sprout farm, Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said at the Berlin news conference. Lower Saxony still sees a connection between the outbreak and the farm in the town of Bienenbuettel even though tests have come up negative, Agriculture Minister Gert Lindemann told N24 in an interview today.

"We have, as yet, no bacterial results, and I don't know if we'll ever have these," the Lower Saxony minister is cited as saying. "But the epidemiological chain between the sites of the outbreak and the Bienenbuettel site yesterday became stronger rather than weaker."

Tests on 471 samples from Lower Saxony have come back negative, with another 382 still being tested, the state said in an e-mailed statement today. Nine samples taken from the farm have tested negative for the bacteria, and eight tests are still being conducted, the state said.

Infections among some employees of the Bienenbuettel facility support a link, Lindemann told the German news channel today.

The strain of E. coli involved in the outbreak produces a toxin that attacks the kidneys and blood vessels. Most cases have occurred in adult women, and among people from northern Germany or who have recently traveled there, the ECDC said.

EU nations reported 722 people have developed a potentially fatal kidney complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome after being infected with E. coli, the agency said today. That's an increase from 674 cases yesterday.

--With assistance from Rainer Buergin in Berlin, Niklas Magnusson in Hamburg, Rudy Ruitenberg in Paris and Emma Ross- Thomas in Madrid. Editors: Phil Serafino, David Risser, Marthe Fourcade.

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