April 20, 2024

In Germany, Answers Are Elusive as E. Coli Outbreak Rages

Two hospital attendants were wheeling a stretcher, as quickly and as carefully as possible, along the wide corridor. The woman on the stretcher lay motionless, her eyes closed. There was a grimace on her face and her skin was a pale yellow-gray.

Inside one room, a young man, dressed in a green hospital gown, sat completely still beside a bed, his hand resting on the side. He looked at the woman lying in the bed. She had same color as the woman on the stretcher, the same listlessness.

This solemn scene on Tuesday afternoon at the hospital, north of the city center, is just one part of a food contamination crisis unfolding in northern Germany and beyond, as health officials continue to scramble to find the source of a deadly E.coli outbreak and doctors struggle to keep alive the most vulnerable of the victims.

“These people are very, very sick,” said Dr. Jörg F. Debatin, the medical director and chief executive of the huge clinic, where doctors are fighting to save the lives of the 20 people in the intensive care unit.

Hamburg is the center of a crisis that broke out nearly three weeks ago. As of Tuesday, 15 people had died, according to the German state authorities, and more than 1,100 are suffering from the effects of the bacteria. Scores are in intensive care units like the one here.

As medical officials deal with the illnesses, a mystery remains about the precise source. Despite earlier statements by the regional authorities that the E. coli could be traced to cucumbers from facilities in Spain — a stance that continued to prompt angry denials from Spanish officials — officials in Berlin admitted on Tuesday that there was no certainty this was the case.

There was still a “very difficult situation in Germany,” Agriculture Minister Robert Kloos said in Hungary. “We’re not yet able to establish exactly where and how the infection has arisen.”

The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control authority, is monitoring the spread of the infections, which can cause a disease called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or H.U.S., which can in turn lead to kidney failure and death.

Meanwhile, one woman in Sweden died in the first fatality outside Germany linked to the outbreak, The Associated Press reported, but officials noted that she had recently visited Germany.

The suggestions that the outbreak is linked to Spanish produce has ignited tensions between Spain and Germany, as farmers were forced to dump produce. Tensions are also rising with Russia, which blocked some imports and threatened to extend that ban.

Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden, Belgium and Russia were blocking entry of Spanish cucumbers, according to news reports from Spain. In addition, some Dutch exports of cucumbers had also been halted.

Over the weekend, Spanish officials underlined that there had been no outbreak of the illness in Spain, and they said that this suggested that the vegetables were contaminated elsewhere. While one case was recorded in Spain on Tuesday, officials noted that the patient, a man hospitalized in the Basque country, had recently visited Germany.

“We are by now talking about hundreds of millions of euros of loss,” Armando García López, the chief of staff of the regional agriculture department of Andalusia, said by telephone. “Germany has tabled an accusation without any proof, which is something totally illegal and in gross violation of the E.U.’s common agricultural policy.”

Carlos Rojas, the mayor of Motril, one of the Andalusian towns that is a major producer of cucumbers, said over the phone that the situation for local farmers was “a complete disaster.”

Mr. Rojas said farmers had been forced to abandon their production and leave it to rot on the ground because of canceled orders from Germany, Austria and other countries.

“There is a reluctance on the part of consumers to purchase vegetables,” said Mr. Kloos, the German minister. “All vegetables in the European Union are affected,” he said, specifically mentioning Spain, The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.

Mr. Kloos was speaking after a meeting of agriculture ministers as efforts also got underway on Tuesday to compensate producers who were losing business.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/01/world/europe/01iht-ecoli01.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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