An E coli outbreak suspected to have been caused by tainted vegetables has claimed 14 victims in Germany, authorities said on Monday, while more deaths were “probable” and shipments of “suspect cucumbers” to five other European countries had been traced.
In the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a 91-year-old woman, who was also suffering from other health problems, died on Sunday, while on Monday a woman aged between 40 and 50 also died after becoming infected with enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC).
A third woman, aged 87, and a 75-year-old man died in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Monday. The latest victims are the first outside northern Germany. Of the 14 people who have died in the outbreak, 12 have been women.
After a meeting of government and regional ministers in Berlin, Health Minister Daniel Bahr warned that “unfortunately an increasing number of cases are to be reckoned with.” Reinhard Burger, president of the Robert Koch Institute, responsible for disease control and prevention in the country, warned that “further deaths cannot be ruled out, and are in fact probable.” However, while the number of infections continued to rise, the rate had slowed in Hamburg, the northern city where most cases had been reported.
“I hope very much that this is a sign that the wave of infections has already peaked,” Hamburg Health Senator Cornelia Pruefer-Storcks said.
But Burger warned against eating raw vegetables in northern Germany.
Washing vegetables before eating was not enough, he said, adding that while he understood the plight of farmers “the protection of the population’s health takes precedence.” EHEC had a “European dimension” Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner said, adding that “we are facing a great challenge.” There have been almost four dozen cases reported in five other European countries — Austria, Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden — with another three found in the United States.
Health authorities in Norway also reported finding contaminated cucumbers but said they had not entered the market.
Many of the victims were suffering from haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS), a form of kidney failure caused by E coli.
But all have so far only involved people who recently were in Germany or German nationals travelling abroad.
Germany has blamed the outbreak on organically grown cucumbers imported from Spain, though Spanish Health Minister Leire Pajin said there was “no proof, no evidence” behind the accusations.
Spanish Rural Affairs Minister Rosa Aguilar said she would ask Germany to clarify the origin of the contamination. Spain would seek financial compensation from the European Union for the “irreparable and unfair” damage that the scandal had caused to Spanish vegetable producers, Aguilar said.
Meanwhile, Russia on Monday banned all imports of vegetables from Germany and Spain.
“If the situation does not change, we will block all vegetable products from the entire EU,” government spokesman Gennady Onishchenko said.