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The outbreak of a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria found on cucumbers in Germany has claimed 16 lives. With new cases emerging in seven other countries, governments are pointing fingers at the German authorities.
Most of the victims have been from northern Germany
The highly virulent strain of the Enterohemorrhagic E. coli bacteria (EHEC) claimed its first victim outside Germany on Tuesday, while health authorities in seven other European countries confirmed a total of at least 73 cases of the infection. More than 1,500 cases have been reported in Germany.
A hospital in Sweden announced the death of a woman from the EHEC bacteria. The woman, who was in her 50s, had been treated in the southwestern Swedish town of Boras after a recent visit to Germany.
The gastro-intestinal bacterial infection - believed to stem from contaminated vegetables and possibly meat - has now spread beyond Germany and Sweden to Poland, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and Britain.
Sweden has confirmed 40 cases, Denmark 14, the Netherlands seven, France six, Britain three and Poland, Norway and Switzerland one each.
Cucumber sales have dropped drastically
On Sunday, a 91-year-old woman in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany died from the intestinal bacteria, and the state confirmed a second death on Monday.
This brings the total number of victims who have died from the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany to at least 15. Most of the victims have been women living in northern Germany.
Tensions rise as outbreak spreads
The source of the deadly E. coli strain was thought to be cucumbers imported from Spain, but tests on the vegetable done by the Hamburg Health Department have ruled this out and the search for the source of the infections continues.
The outbreak, one of the largest of its kind, has raised diplomatic tensions between Germany and the EU. Moscow has banned some vegetable imports and is threatening to extend the ban to the whole of the European Union.
Spanish media has reported that Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden, Belgium and Russia were blocking entry of Spanish cucumbers. The United States said it was also testing cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce imported from Spain.
Madrid has rejected German claims that its cucumbers were to blame for the epidemic and has asked the European Union for aid to compensate for what it said was already extensive damage to its agriculture sector.
"The image of Spain is being ruined; Spanish producers are being damaged, and the Spanish government is not prepared to accept this situation," Agriculture Minister Rosa Aguilar said.
On the sidelines of an EU farm ministers meeting in Hungary, German State Secretary for Agriculture, Robert Kloos, admitted that Spanish cucumbers were "not the cause" of the infections.
The Netherlands said exports of cucumbers to Germany, its most important market, had all but halted, costing its farmers millions of euros.
Bahr said EHEC will continue to spread
Infection not over
Officials from the state and federal governments of Germany are working feverishly to limit the political fallout from the deepening E.coli crisis, but said they were "back at square one" after realizing that Spanish vegetables were not the cause.
The source remains a mystery and German Health Minister Daniel Bahr said there were indications that the source was still active.
"The result is that we are unfortunately going to be dealing with a rise in the number of cases," Bahr said in a news conference after a crisis meeting.
France has criticized the lack of progress, with French Health Minister Xavier Bertrand demanding greater transparency from Germany and Spain.
The German Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner said the situation was serious and was "a matter of life and death."
"Consumer protection has the highest priority," she added.
Germany's national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, has advised against eating raw cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce, especially if these vegetables were purchased in northern Germany.
The Stockholm-based European Center for Disease Prevention and Control has described the outbreak of the strain of E. coli as one of the largest worldwide.
Author: Gregg Benzow, Matt Zuvela, Joanna Impey (AFP, dpa, dapd)
Editor: Nicole Goebel