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E. coli outbreak

May 24, 2011

A life-threatening form of the bacteria E. coli has spread across much of Germany, with scores of patients seriously ill in hospital. The bug claimed its first victim over the weekend, health officials confirmed Tuesday.

A scanning electron micrograph of EHEC by the Robert Koch Institute
The bacteria can lead to anemia and even kidney failureImage: Robert Koch Institut

A deadly outbreak of the E. coli bacterium has claimed several victims in Germany, authorities confirmed Tuesday.

The deaths follow reports that at least 140 people had fallen ill after becoming infected over recent weeks.

Health officials said an 83-year-old woman from the northern state of Lower Saxony died Saturday after having suffered since May 15 with the bacteria.

There were two more deaths in which E. coli was a suspected cause. A young woman in the city-state of Bremen also died overnight Tuesday, but officials there were unable to immediately confirm the presence of E. coli in her system. They said, however, the woman had been exhibiting typical symptoms of E. coli infection.

Another woman over 80 years old in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein died after being infected, although state health authorities said they have not yet confirmed that E. coli was the cause of death.

Widespread cases

The spread of the suspected infections has startled health officials, with two individuals in the central city of Frankfurt being placed on artificial respiration machines as the surge in the number of cases of Enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC), a new sub-strain, was reported across the country.

More than 40 of those confirmed to have contracted the infection, which can cause internal bleeding, diarrhea and kidney failure, and in some cases anemia, were said to be in a serious condition late Monday.

Some 40 people were being treated in Hamburg, with cases also reported in North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig Holstein states.

Eight patients in Dusseldorf were reported to be "seriously ill" by regional health officials.

Authorities said that, in addition to the confirmed cases, more than 160 people nationwide were also being tested for the bacterium.

The outbreak, thought to have been spread through contaminated vegetables, is unusual in that it has affected mainly adults. Between 800 and 1,200 cases of EHEC are reported in Germany each year, but these predominantly involve children.

Author: Richard Connor, Darren Mara (AFP, dpa, dapd)
Editor: Susan Houlton