Mike the Mad Biologist

…and I can’t blame them. The recent and ongoing E. coli outbreak which began in Germany was originally claimed to have been traced to Spanish cucumbers. Erm, not so much:

German agricultural authorities on Sunday identified locally grown bean sprouts as the likely cause of an E. coli outbreak that has killed 22 people and sickened hundreds in Europe.

The Lower Saxony agriculture ministry was sending an alert Sunday warning people to stop eating the sprouts, which are often used in mixed salads, ministry spokesman Gert Hahne told The Associated Press.

“Bean sprouts have been identified as the product that likely caused the outbreak,” Hahne said. “Many restaurants that suffered from an E.coli outbreak had those sprouts delivered.”

Hahne said the sprouts were grown on a farm in Lower Saxony in northern Germany. He did not elaborate but planned a news conference later Sunday.

Hahne said while official test results have not yet conclusively shown that the Lower Saxony-grown sprouts were to blame, “all indications speak to them being” the cause.

Meanwhile, the quality of care is being questioned:

Nicoletta Pabst, 41, told the AP on Saturday that sanitary conditions at the Hamburg-Eppendorf hospital had been horrendous and its emergency room filled with ailing people.

“All of us had diarrhea and there was only one bathroom each for men and women — it was a complete mess,” she said. “If I hadn’t been sick with E. coli by then, I probably would have picked it up over there.”

After waiting three hours to be seen, Pabst was told to go home because her blood levels did not indicate that she had kidney failure. When her symptoms deteriorated sharply, she had to return by ambulance the next morning and was treated for a week at a different hospital.

While this might have been a poor diagnosis, containing the diarrhea patients to one bathroom is what hospitals should do–it’s easier to prevent it from spreading to other patients.

I’ll have more to say about the outbreak tomorrow, but the EU and German public health response to this has been less than stellar at the upper levels.

Comments

  1. #1 Chromosome Crawl
    June 5, 2011

    Whoops!

    Maybe they thought sprout – based STEC / EHEC infections were so….20th century. They wanted to go with something splashier!

  2. #2 Nina
    June 6, 2011

    Apparently they did find EHEC on those cucumbers, but it eventually turned out to be a different strain.
    I suppose if they had waited for the definitive final diagnosis before warning, they would have been roasted for allowing people to fall ill and die in the meantime, if it had indeed turned out to be that strain. Arguably, that would have been a bigger disaster.
    How is EHEC on cucumbers okay anyway?

    I do feel sympathy for farmers as a whole who can’t sell their crops at the moment. I was given a cucumber for free at a local market (yes, in Germany) recently with a desperate-sounding comment of “this won’t hurt you, it’s from around here”. “Around here” being the southern end of the country.

  3. #3 bobh
    June 6, 2011

    What am I missing? Sprouts are very difficult, if not impossible, to clean adequately. Cucumbers, not so much (assuming it is on the skin – does e coli get inside the skin of cucumbers?). Why would one not look at sprouts first for food borne e coli outbreaks?

  4. #4 blubb
    June 6, 2011

    The health authorities stated quite some days ago that the source are probably raw vegetables, which as far as I understand led to quite some decline in the sales. Since cucumber is practically only eaten raw, the Spanish farmers would feel the same consequences even without the public warning, so where exactly is the problem? Especially considering Nina’s comment; had the authorities not given out the information they would be criticised as well.

  5. #5 Phillip IV
    June 6, 2011

    Why would one not look at sprouts first for food borne e coli outbreaks?

    Well, stupid coincidences happen – the way it starts to look right now, several of the restaurants that received the EHEC contaminated sprouts also received cucumbers from Spain which were contaminated with a separate, more harmless EHEC strain. The cucumber connection just happened to be discovered first, and before the strain on the cucumber was precisely identified, it seemed like a rather convincing case.

  6. #6 Enrique
    June 7, 2011

    Well, the problem is that there is NO evidence of EHEC strains in cucumbers, as far as I knoe, only of E. coli isolates. That’s pretty poor basis for a health alarm as coliforms are everywhere. And EHEC strains are a much more serious, and diferent, risk than generic coliform contamination.

  7. #7 Nina
    June 8, 2011

    Here’s the official statement of the office for risk assessment (=Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung):

    http://www.bfr.bund.de/en/press_information/2011/13/ehec_germs_on_spanish_cucumbers_do_not_correspond_to_the_pathogen_type_of_the_patients_concerned-70733.html

    In short, while they did not find O104:H4, 2 of 4 samples contained Shiga toxin producing E. coli. So, EHEC, just not the “correct” ones.

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