BERLIN — The foodborne bacterial outbreak that has hit Germany and other European nations is unlike anything Western experts have seen — 16 dead and more than 1,000 sick, including nearly 400 suffering severe and potentially fatal symptoms.
And several days into the health threat, scientists remain unsure what produce, and what country, is responsible.
Investigators across Europe were frantically trying to determine the scope of the contamination by an unusual strain of the common E. coli germ, and where in the long journey from farm to grocery store the contamination occurred.
German authorities pointed to a few cucumbers from Spain, but further tests showed that those vegetables, while contaminated, did not cause the outbreak.
In Germany, where the vast majority of deaths and severe illnesses have been reported, officials said investigations have shown that people likely were infected by eating raw
cucumbers, tomatoes or lettuce. They are warning consumers to avoid those vegetables, and Russia has banned imports of those vegetables from Spain or Germany.
In its most severe form, the infection can attack the kidneys, sometimes causing seizures, strokes and comas.
It is “extraordinary” to see so many cases of the kidney complication from a foodborne illness, said Robert Tauxe, a foodborne disease expert at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There has not been such an outbreak before that we know of in the history of public health,” Tauxe said. He added that the strain of E. coli in the European outbreak has not been seen in the United States, where there have been several high-profile foodborne outbreaks in recent years, but none with such a high death toll.
There’s little precedent in Europe either. In 1996, an E. coli outbreak in the United Kingdom caused 11 deaths.