Germany is counting the losses incurred due to the E.coli outbreak, which so far left 35 people dead, as new infections ebbed away and life returned to normal for thousands of consumers confused by unsubstantiated warnings about the cause of the epidemic.
Germany’s farmers’ association has described the epidemic as the “worst crisis” for the country’s agricultural sector since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 25 years ago, and claimed that farmers and traders of fresh fruits and vegetables have suffered “massive losses” as a result of false warnings about cucumber, tomatoes and lettuce as possible carriers of the deadly Escherichia coli bacteria.
The warnings issued by the health authorities against those fresh vegetables without scientific evidence did not prevent further spreading of the epidemic, but caused uncertainty about the source of the contamination and damaged the country’s farm sector, according to Gerd Sonnleitner, president of the German Farmers’ Association.
Sonnleitner described as “insufficient” 210 million euros offered by the European Commission in Brussels last week to pay compensation for EU farmers hit by the E.coli crisis.
Even though the consumers began buying fresh vegetables, it will take some time to restore the trade in fresh fruits and vegetables, which was completely broken down by the epidemic, he said, ahead of a meeting of EU agriculture ministers tomorrow to finalise the aid plan.
German health authorities at the weekend pinpointed bean sprouts as the main source of the worst E.coli epidemic in more than 60 years and confirmed that the contaminated vegetable had their origin in an organic farm in Bienenbuttel, in northern Germany.
They also lifted the warnings against eating raw cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce.
Health officials are currently investigating the possibility that the lethal bacteria may have been carried to the farm by imported seeds.
The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s national disease control and prevention centre, confirmed that the death toll in the five—week epidemic rose to 35 on Saturday, but the number of new infections continued to drop steadily.
It estimated that around 3,200 people have developed symptoms of E.coli infection since its outbreak.
The EU farmers and fresh produce trade have suffered losses of 400 million euros a week, according to the estimates of the European farmers association Copa—Copeca.
The Spanish government claimed that its farmers lost around 200 million euros a week after the health authorities in Hamburg issued false warnings about Spanish cucumbers as a potential source of the infection, triggering an import ban in several countries.
France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Austria also claimed that the outbreak caused heavy losses for their farmers.
Meanwhile, a German epidemiologist has warned that more than 730 patients currently undergoing treatment for the haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS), the worst form of E.coli infection, will suffer from consequential damage during the rest of their life and around 100 of them are facing so acute kidney complications that they will require kidney transplantation or life—long dialysis.
Karl Lauterbach, health expert of the opposition Social democratic Party (SPD) and member of the Bundestag health affairs committee, said in a newspaper interview at the weekend that doctors attending on those patients also reported severe neurological damage.
He warned that the aggressive E.coli strain, which caused the epidemic, is spreading rapidly worldwide and there will be similar outbreaks in the future in Germany and abroad.
Lauterbach said the health affairs committee would open an inquiry into whether lack of coordination among various federal and state health agencies and unsubstantiated warnings had cost precious time in identifying the source of the infection.
The German government has been under criticism at home and abroad for its handling of the E.coli crisis.
Several hospitals in northern Germany, the epicentre of the epidemic, have been over—stretched to deal with a flood patients who needed intensive care and they are now seeking support of the federal government to avert a financial collapse.
Many of the hospitals have already exceeded the annual budgetary limit set by the state—owned insurance companies.
Around 20 university hospitals, which bore the brunt of acute patients, have accumulated additional costs running into several million euros, according to the Federation of German University Hospitals.
A spokesman for the federation said it is too early to specify the overall costs for the university hospitals in treating E.coli patients, but treatments in intensive stations involving dialysis would have cost on an average 20,000 euros per patient.
An annual budget of 180 billion euros earmarked by the insurance companies for the university hospitals and regional hospitals is “insufficient” to cope with such a massive outbreak, the spokesman said in a TV interview.
In addition, several hospitals will be facing huge follow—up costs because many HUS patients will require life—long dialysis, the spokesman said.