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E. Coli in German Outbreak is New Strain

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A new strand of E. coli bacteria is causing a deadly outbreak in Europe, reported the World Health Organization (WHO). On Thursday, the agency said tests suggest the strain is a mutant form of two E. coli bacterium which carries lethal genes making it resistant to several classes of antibiotics.

According to MSNBC.com, the new E. coli strain has killed 17 people in Germany and one in Sweden, while more than 1,500 people have been reported ill. Scientists are calling this the worst recorded E. coli breakout in history. In 1996, two people died in a Japanese outbreak that also left more than 12,000 ill; while in 2000, seven people died during a Canadian outbreak.

“This strain has never been seen in an outbreak situation before,” said a spokeswoman for WHO.

Scientists are racing to understand the unique strain, “this E. coli is a new strain of bacteria that is highly infectious and toxic,” said Chinese scientists at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen city.

The bacterium identified was closely related to another strain found previously in African known to cause serious diarrhea. It seems the new strain can attach to the intestine walls and produce toxins which can damage the entire body, reported Reuters.

Cases have been reported in 10 European countries, and in the U.S. two residents who recently traveled in northern Germany have become ill.

According to Reuters, German officials initially blamed contaminated cucumbers from Spain but have since apologized for the statement.

Although WHO has not recommended any trade restrictions, Russia issued a ban on imported vegetables from the European Union (EU) which will take effect Thursday morning. The country already banned imports from Germany and Spain even though there are no reported deaths or infections in Russia.

“A ban on the import of fresh vegetables from EU countries takes effect from this morning,” said Gennady Onishchenko, head of the consumer protection agency Rospotrebnadzor. “How many more lives of European citizens does it take for European officials to tackle this problem,” reported Interfax news agency.

Russia’s ban created uproar from the Polish and Dutch governments, Spain and the European Commission.

Poland, one of the biggest exporters of fruits and vegetables, said Russia’s reaction was “excessive compared to the danger,” reported Reuters; the Netherlands considers the ban a “major blow.”

Meanwhile, Spain is threatening legal action over Russia’s ban. The government is seeking compensation for its farmers who suffered lost sales of 200 million euros ($287 million) a week, reported Reuters. The ban could also leave 70,000 people unemployed.

“I would have liked a clearer reaction from the Commission,” Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said during an interview on state radio RNE. He is holding the German federal government ultimately responsible for the allegations and claims he will seek compensation and explanations from Germany.

The commission considers the ban “disproportionate” and is demanding “further clarification of the ban” from the Russian Agency for the Supervision of Consumer Rights, said Frederic Vincent, a spokesman for the EU’s Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli.

Experts urge people traveling and living in Germany to avoid consuming raw tomatoes, cucumbers and salad. Britain’s Health Protection Agency said, “Anyone returning from Germany with illness including bloody diarrhea should seek urgent medical attention.”

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