1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

On alert

May 24, 2011

May brought a mysterious rise in cases of a dangerous ailment caused by EHEC bacteria. Health officials are scrambling to find the source of the often foodborne disease, which has caused at least one death this month.

EHEC bacteria
The EHEC can lead to severe digestive problemsImage: Robert Koch Institut

German health authorities have registered over 400 confirmed or suspected cases of a rare and potentially lethal bacterial disease since mid May. The reports represent a dramatic rise in comparison with the last ten years, in which 800 to 1,200 cases occurred annually.

The condition is caused by a strain of the bacterium E. coli - enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) - which is often foodborne and can lead to severe digestive problems.

"The first symptom is diarrhea, and, in more severe cases, this is typically followed by blood in the stool and massive cramping," said Reinhard Burger in an interview with Deutsche Welle. Burger is President of Germany's Robert Koch Institute, a federal institution tasked with disease control and prevention.

While an average case runs its course in around a week, acute instances of the ailment can lead to kidney failure and even death. Symptoms generally take several days to show up after individuals come in contact with the EHEC bacteria.

Both the rash of reports and the severity of the outbreaks in May has alarmed public health officials.

"This epidemic is really very unusual, because in a normal year, we only see about 10 cases in Hamburg," Rico Schmidt of Hamburg's Department of Health told Deutsche Welle.

In May, Hamburg has already registered over 40 cases of the more severe form of illness brought on by EHEC.

A doctor in a laboratory holds a tube containing the EHEC bacteria
One woman has died from the infection so far in May, but others may soon followImage: dapd

Source still unknown

Health officials and scientists are working hard to isolate what is causing this year's outbreaks while advising customers to exercise extra caution in selecting and cleaning the foods they consume.

"Since the source of the infections hasn't yet been discovered, that means we also can't put a stop to it - instead, we have to get warnings out to people," said Dr. Susanne Huggett, Medical Director at the MEDILYS laboratory in Hamburg, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Hamburg's Institute for Hygiene and Environment said unwashed vegetables could be the prime suspect based on information gathered from afflicted individuals, while sources like raw milk, cream cheese and beef that more often contain the bacteria seem unlikely to have caused the current epidemic.

"If fields are fertilized with liquid manure, then the EHEC bacteria can make its way on to salad or vegetables sold in supermarkets," noted Werner Solbach, microbiologist at the University of Lübeck, in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "These days, we have a lot of pre-packaged and prepared salads for sale that may contain the bacteria."

Vegetables including radishes and cucumbers in a stand
A public health body in Hamburg said vegetables may be carrying the bacteriaImage: picture alliance/Arco Images GmbH

Although generally children and the elderly are most at risk of infection, investigators have also noted an unusually high number of adult women among the sufferers this year, leading to questions about whether the source is in a product marketed more heavily to women.

One confirmed death

So far, one death has been confirmed from this month's outbreak. An 83-year-old woman died due to complications from the bacteria on May 21, said Hannover's Department of Health on Tuesday. A number of other patients infected with EHEC are currently in critical condition.

Vegetables haven't been definitively identified as the culprit, stressed a spokesperson for the Robert Koch Institute stressed on Tuesday in an interview with the dapd press agency. As such, the organization recommends exercising extra caution when cooking meat and doesn't rule out alternative infection sources like contaminated water.

The Institute added that new cases are continuing to be reported, and the source of the infections may very well still be active.

Author: Greg Wiser (dpa, dapd, AFP)
Editor: Cyrus Farivar