World Health Organization (WHO) officials have blamed a rare but highly infectious strain of E. coli for sixteen deaths and thousands of illnesses in Europe, spiking international health and economic concerns.
According to WHO’s most recent reports, nine patients in Germany have died of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a form of kidney failure that results from this strain, and six have succumbed to enterohemorrhagic E. coli, or EHEC, a type of E. coli that causes hemorrhaging in the intestines and can result in abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea. An additional death in Sweden pushes the toll to sixteen so far.
Across Europe, the number of those affected by the outbreak is staggering. A whopping 1,115 cases of EHEC and 499 cases of HUS have been reported, bringing the total number to 1,614.
The scare began in Germany, but has now spread to ten countries, including: Austria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. On its website, the organization noted that “all these cases except two are in people who had recently visited northern Germany or in one case, had contact with a visitor from northern Germany.”
Though cucumbers from Almeria and Malaga, Spain were originally pinpointed as the source of the outbreak, international officials have stated that no definite cause has yet been identified.
“Numerous investigations are continuing into the source of the outbreak, which is still unclear,” WHO said in a website report.
Nevertheless, European Union vegetable farmers have been hit hard by the cucumber claim. A major economic player, Russia has imposed a ban on fresh vegetable imports from the European Union, a move dubbed “excessive compared to the danger” by the Polish government and “disproportionate” by Frederic Vincent, health spokesman of the European Commission.
But Russia stands by its decision.
“No one wants to get sick,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich. “It is a natural protective measure taken in response to events that are happening in Europe today.”
And according to Yelena Skrynnik, Russia’s agriculture minister, Russians have little to lose. With only 11% of tomato imports and 5% of cucumber imports coming from European Union countries, Russia’s “volume of home-grown vegetable production combined with exports (from other countries) is sufficient to fully meet Russia’s domestic demand.”
Most of the fresh vegetables that Russia imports come from China and Turkey.
On Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates followed in Russia’s footsteps, and imposed a ban on cucumbers from Spain, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
Plagued by the scrutiny, European farmers continue to feel the pinch, and have begun to demand compensation for lost business.
“We do not rule out taking action against authorities which have cast doubt on the quality of our produce,” said Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, deputy prime minister of Spain, “so action may be taken against the authorities, in this case Hamburg.”
Similarly, after asserting that the nation’s produce had been “completely cleared,” Carles Casajuana i Palet, Spain’s ambassador to Britain, noted that “there will have to be compensations” to farmers following the produce scare.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been monitoring the E. coli strain and has alerted state departments of the ongoing outbreak. Currently, the CDC is not aware of any cases of HUS or EHEC in the United States, but Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC’s division of foodborne diseases notes that though the organization has “very little experience with this particular strain [it] has been seen before.”
Meanwhile, travelers to Germany are being urged to follow food safety precautions and to avoid raw cucumbers, tomatoes, and salad greens.
Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Vegetable_market_in_Heraklion.jpg