Mutant E.coli is in Britain: Seven victims in UK have new contagious strain that's killed 18
Last updated at 11:37 PM on 2nd June 2011
A mutant strain of E.coli which has killed at least 18 people has reached Britain, health officials confirmed yesterday.
Seven people in the UK have been infected by the food poisoning outbreak, three Britons and four German nationals.
All are understood to have been infected in Germany, the centre of the outbreak. So far, 1,600 people have fallen ill in 11 countries across Europe and the U.S.
Mutant strain: The new form of E.coli is responsible for 18 deaths and carries genes that make it resistant to many common antibiotics. It also produced toxins that can cause kidney failure
Infection is especially common among women, who have accounted for at least 13 of the 18 deaths.
E.coli can be contagious and is spread person to person when infected people fail to take proper hygiene measures, such as washing their hands.
The bacterium responsible for the current outbreak is a completely new strain and carries genes that make it resistant to many common antibiotics. It produces powerful toxins which can cause kidney failure.
Health officials said the ‘unique’ strain had ‘characteristics that make it more virulent and toxin-producing’, and therefore more dangerous, and warned that this could result in one of the deadliest E.coli outbreaks ever seen.
The source: Scientists are working to pinpoint the cause but believe salad vegetables may have been contaminated with manure
Russia has banned the import of any vegetables from the entire European Union.
Scientists are working to pinpoint the exact cause, but they believe salad vegetables have been infected by bacteria in animal manure used to fertilise crops.
German authorities initially blamed contaminated Spanish cucumbers, but later admitted this was wrong. Spain has threatened legal action over its farmers’ lost sales.
Britons travelling to Germany have been advised to avoid eating raw tomatoes, cucumber and salad leaves including lettuce.
Consumers in this country have been warned to wash all fruit and vegetables, and to see a doctor if they suffer symptoms including abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhoea, fever and vomiting.
From the 1,600 reported cases, 499 have gone on to develop kidney failure linked to the infection, including three of the UK patients.
Victims can be left needing dialysis, and in severe cases the infection affects the central nervous system and can prove deadly.
Health officials warned that there could be many more cases, as victims with mild symptoms were unlikely to have sought medical help.
As well as Britain, the World Health Organisation has been notified of cases in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.S.
All the victims except two had recently visited northern Germany or, in one case, had contact with a visitor from that area.
Denis Coulombier, head of surveillance and response for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said analysis showed a strong link between the outbreak and the consumption of fresh vegetables in Germany.
He said: ‘To have such a high number of severe cases means that probably there was a huge contamination at some junction.
‘That could have been anywhere from the farm to the fork – in transport, packaging, cleaning, at wholesalers, or retailers – anywhere along that food chain.’
Patients have been questioned about their recent travel history.
The E.coli outbreak is already the third largest in recent world history.
Twelve died in a 1996 Japanese outbreak that reportedly affected more than 12,000, and seven died in Canada in 2000.
It is rare for adults to suffer seriously from E.coli infections, which are usually more severe in children and the elderly. But in this outbreak the vast majority of victims have been adults.
Russian officials said they banned vegetable imports from Europe because of ‘irresponsible’ delays in the EU response to the outbreak.
Gennady Onishchenkco, head of the state consumer watchdog, blamed ‘liberal’ EU regulation for the outbreak, and claimed that the high level of antibiotics allowed in food production in Europe led to the E.coli bacteria becoming resistant to treatment.