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Unknown bacteria

June 3, 2011

Health officials say a never-before-seen strain of E. coli bacteria is behind the outbreak that has killed 18 people and sickened thousands across Europe. Russia has banned all vegetable imports from the European Union.

A scientist holds a cell culture
Scientists are still looking for the source of the outbreakImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The strain of E. coli that has killed 18 people in Europe is a new variation of the bacteria, a World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman said Thursday.

"This strain has never been seen in an outbreak situation before," said Aphaluck Bhatiasevi, adding that the WHO was awaiting further details from labs analyzing the bacteria.

Scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute, who are collaborating with Germany's University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, completed sequencing the genome of the bacterium and called the new strain "highly infectious and toxic."

The scientists added that the new strain carried several antibiotic resistant genes, making antibiotic treatment extremely difficult. The bacterium is similar to other strains that cause diarrhea and kidney failure.

The blame game

A nurse working in a hospital
Some patients aren't responding to antibioticsImage: picture alliance/dpa

In addition to its 17 German victims, the outbreak has also killed one person in Sweden and left more than 1,200 people confirmed ill in Europe and several in the United States.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has sharply criticized Russia's decision to ban all vegetable imports from the European Union.

"We're demanding an explanation from Russia," said a spokesman for Health Commissioner John Dalli, calling the ban "disproportionate."

The United Arab Emirates has also banned cucumber imports from Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark, pending further investigation.

On Wednesday, cucumbers from Spain, which were initially singled out by German officials as the source of the outbreak, were given the all-clear after rigorous testing by health officials.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has criticized Germany's and the European Commission's handling of the outbreak, pledging to seek damages for losses suffered by Spanish farmers who have suddenly found their produce unsalable.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, following her return from Singapore, defended the handling of the E. coli outbreak, telling Zapatero via telephone that it was the obligation of health authorities to warn German citizens of the threat and pass data on to the European early warning system.

Author: Sarah Harman (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Martin Kuebler