Reports of victims continued to climb yesterday as the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the deadly E.coli bacterium that has killed 17 and left 1614 sickened is a new and virulent strain of the bug.
Mounting confusion over the source of the health scare has triggered a furious EU-wide row – with Russia banning imports of all European raw vegetables and Spain threatening legal action against German authorities for wrongly naming its produce as causing the crisis.
Madrid reacted angrily after Spanish cucumbers were cleared Wednesday as being the root of the problem that is quickly becoming one of the most serious in recent years.
The sense that experts were no nearer finding the origin of the problem came as the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) admitted that the contamination could have occurred almost anywhere along the supply chain. However, the Sweden-based body re-iterated the strong link between vegetable consumption and the disease
“To have such a high number of severe cases means that probably there was a huge contamination at some junction,” Denis Coulombier, head of surveillance and response told Reuters. “That could have been anywhere from the farm to the fork – in transport, packaging, cleaning, at wholesalers or retailers – anywhere along that food chain.”
Scientists from the Beijing Genomics Institute in southern China said Thursday the new E.colistrain responsible for the outbreak carried genes that made it resistant to some antibiotics.
“This E.coli is a new strain of bacteria that is highly infectious and toxic,” said researchers from the Shenzhen-based centre who are collaborating with scientists in Germany.
The WHO confirmed the enterohaemorrhagic escherichia coli (EHEC) 0104:H4 strain had never been seen before in an outbreak situation, adding the body was waiting for more information from laboratories.
A proportion of the victims infected with the bacteria have presented haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and bloody diarrhoea.
The WHO said figures as of 31 May showed that HUS and EHEC continued to rise in Germany, with 10 countries now confirming cases. Nine patients in Germany had died of HUS, and six of EHEC. There has also been one fatality in Sweden, it said.
Cases had been reported in Austria, Denmark, France, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. All cases except two are in people who recently visited northern Germany or in one case, had contact with a visitor from northern Germany, added the WHO.
Political and economic row
As victim numbers climbed further, albeit more slowly than previously, the political and economic fallout intensified.
Russia’s decision to extend its ban on vegetables from Germany and Spain to all EU states was swiftly condemned by the European Commission as “disproportionate” with Brussels urging Moscow to reverse it immediately.
Russia’s consumer protection chief Gennady Onishchenko, said the deaths “demonstrate that the much-praised European sanitary legislation which Russia is being urged to adopt does not work”.
Total EU vegetable shipments to Russia – including raw produce – were estimated to be worth €594m last year, with France, Germany and Poland the biggest exporters.
Spain has also added to the row by threatening legal action in pursuit of compensation for its farmers, who claim lost sales run to €200m a week, and have put 70,000 under threat in the sector.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero criticised the European Commission for being slow to act.
“I would have liked a clearer reaction from the Commission,” he told state radio RNE. “The German federal government should know that it has an overall responsibility to other states in the European Union and we shall ask for very forthright explanations and…demand sufficient reparations.”
John Dalli, European Commissioner for health and consumer protection, issued a statement setting out the pace and breadth of Brussels’ response.
He said everything possible was being done, although he added: “I urge the Member States and in particular Germany to increase their efforts in that direction.”